Okay, a meeting might be overstating it. But I did meet and have a one-on-one discussion with Barack Obama in Washington. It was exhilarating, fascinating and empowering. I left DC on such a high that I barely needed an airplane to fly back to San Francisco. So here, in a nutshell, is what happened.
After volunteering for the Kerry campaign in 2004 and the Obama campaign in 2008, mostly in my capacity as a lawyer (e.g. I spent Election Day on November 4, 2008, at various precincts in northern Nevada doing voter protection), I was contacted last month by a local Obama campaign volunteer about renewing my efforts. Would I like to volunteer again? I said absolutely, but suggested I might also do some fundraising, given my contacts. So she put me in touch with a local high-level fundraising “bundler” and we arranged to meet for coffee at Emporio Rulli in Larkspur.
The bundler and I immediately hit it off. She and her husband are former Wall Street investment bankers, with more than enough disposable income to max out on their annual campaign contributions, but she also felt a duty and had the time to do more. Her European education and international background gave us a common reference point, she liked my fundraising ideas and she seemed impressed by some of my contacts. So much so that, at the conclusion of our meeting, she invited me to join her at the next Obama Campaign Finance Committee meeting in Washington, scheduled to take place in early December. Technically, only major donors could attend but she made it clear that her bundling status entitled her to invite me as a guest and, as an added sweetener, the President might drop by.
That was all the motivation I needed. The idea of spending a couple of days in a hotel ballroom in DC wasn’t particularly appealing, despite the campaign insider briefings we would no doubt receive, but I have long admired Barack Obama. In addition to his historic presidency and all that it portends for this country, his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” impressed me deeply. The chance to shake his hand was too good to pass up.
Luckily, the round-trip airfare was affordable and I could spend the first night staying with friends, one of whom is a former Washington Post editor and the other is an international human rights lawyer. They seemed amused by the purpose of my visit but genuinely appreciative that I was working to help re-elect the President.
Fast-forward to the second day of the conference (the first day I attended Lawyers for Obama meetings and a mover-and-shaker campaign cocktail party in the evening). As soon as I arrived at the hotel’s ballroom level in the morning, it was clear we’d be getting a visit from the President. Security was tight, with metal detectors and x-ray machines just like TSA provides at airports, and plenty of Secret Service agents with their telltale earpieces and wrist sleeve mikes. Then it was confirmed – a staffer handed me a piece of paper and said the President would be talking questions, so I should write one down and submit it before 10 am.
Okay, but what to ask?
I’d been doing a lot of reading and thinking of late about Europe and the sovereign debt crisis. Part was out of personal interest – I hold an EU passport and that summer I’d travelled in Greece, Italy and France, discussing first-hand with locals their views on the problems with the Euro. And part was of out of genuine concern, realizing that if Greece and/or any other over-leveraged Euro-currency countries defaulted, the economic panic could rival that of the sub-prime debacle in 2008, putting the whole U.S. economy in jeopardy along with the rest of the world.
So much of the discussion in Washington the previous 36 hours had been about domestic issues. And of course a lot of “inside baseball” analysis of the GOP race, which at that point looked like Mitt Romney as the safe bet and Newt Gingrich as the current front-runner but ultimate long shot. I figured everyone would be asking about domestic stuff, so I crafted a three-part question about the Euro crisis and handed it to a campaign staffer during a break in the breakfast meeting, an interesting presentation by Obama’s chief pollster about regional election demographics.
Despite the thought-provoking presentations slated for the morning sessions, anticipation obviously was building towards the President’s arrival. The early breakout sessions wrapped and everyone convened in the main ballroom to hear talks by Matthew Barzun, the head of the Chicago-based campaign office, and Jim Messina, the White House-based campaign head. I found myself checking my watch more often – Obama was due at 11 am – but as the time approached 11.15, still nothing.
Then the tone shifted in the room, as the Secret Service guys assembled at the front and grew more alert. The Commander in Chief was on the premises.
And then he walked in. Everyone rose and gave him a standing ovation. It was exciting to see him in person (he looks the same) but what impressed me once he was finally able to speak – this was a very enthusiastic audience! – was the calmness with which he carries himself. He’s obviously a very intelligent man, and this comes across even more so in person, as he addressed a wide range of issues, speaking without notes or hesitation. But he is also very comfortable with who he is, not in an arrogant way but in an assured, self-contained manner. There is none of the sense one gets from an insecure celebrity (or, I am told, from former President Clinton) of an ego-based neediness, a desire to be loved. Obama apparently gets enough of that from his own family and he reassured us that if we gave him the campaign tools to get reelected (i.e. the cash), he would get the job done.
After Obama spoke extemporaneously for twenty minutes or so, Matthew Barzun returned to the stage to read out some questions for him to answer. Since there were over a hundred people in the room, I suppose they figured this would be the most efficient method.
As predicted, all of the initial questions were about domestic issues. The economy. Conflicts with the Congress about pending legislation. Campaign-related strategizing. This went on for perhaps twenty more minutes. Because there were multiple questions for each topic, Matthew presented the questions to the President without attribution to any particular questioner. Obama gave thoughtful, articulate answers to each question. There was, I recall, one question about foreign policy, but it had to do with troop withdrawals and the war on terror, and this quickly morphed into another campaign-related digression.
And then Matthew said this: “I have something a little different now, Mr. President. This question is from Owen Prell from Mill Valley, California.”
I smiled – he was going to read my Euro question! I’d met Matthew the day before, so maybe that had helped, especially since Matthew is the former Ambassador to Sweden.
As soon as Matthew started reading my Euro crisis question, damned if the President didn’t beam from ear to ear and look energized. When the question ended, he launched right into his answer, prefacing it by saying, “I have probably spent more time thinking about this problem and talking to experts and leaders in Europe about it in the past several weeks than on any other subject.”
Bingo – I’d hit the jackpot. As the President soon explained, this was indeed a pressing concern for the very reasons I had figured. If the Europeans couldn’t adequately address the sovereign debt issue and the Euro Zone drifted into full-blown insolvency, the economic repercussions will have global significance. President Obama said this was the one issue that threatened to derail the entire U.S. economic recovery and his very reelection.
He spent a considerable amount of time discussing the specifics of the problem and what he was doing to solve it (basically encouraging Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel to tackle the crisis proactively). A few of my colleagues who I’d gotten to know in the previous day’s meeting gave me congratulatory nudges and glances. The funny thing was, if you’d asked any one of them earlier whether the Euro was going to be Topic A on the President’s address that morning, you would have received blank stares. Just goes to show that great minds think alike. Or so one would like to imagine.
The President wrapped up his answer and moved on to another topic, and the Q&A session ended soon after. Everyone stood up and applauded the President, then many of them moved quickly to a “rope line” at the front of the room. My colleague to my left told me that I should do the same if I would like to shake his hand. So I did what I was told. That was the purpose of my trip to DC after all, wasn’t it?
The problem was, the positions along the rope line were now already staked out, and everyone seemed to know the President. As he moved down the line, to shake hands with someone or kiss a woman on the cheek, he addressed them each by name and moved quickly on. “Remember we met in St. Louis, Mr. President?” “Absolutely, Frank – keep up the good work.” It reminded me of a State of the Union address, when the president greets Congressional well-wishers as he slowly exits the chamber.
Well, I figured, at least I had a height advantage, so I sidled up to the rope line and stuck my hand out above a short African-American woman I’d gotten to know the day before. A really charming, vivacious person, she lived in the DC area and had a large grass-roots following in her community for the Democratic party and the President. She greeted Mr. Obama and he gave her a big grin and a hug before moving on. But he couldn’t ignore my large outstretched meat hook, so he shook my hand.
I couldn’t think of anything earth-shattering to say – what do you say to the President as he gives you a quick handshake? – so I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head: “Good luck with Europe.”
With that, he looked at my name tag. Owen Prell from Mill Valley. I could see him doing the math in his head. Ah, the guy with the Euro question. So instead of moving on, he stayed put and started discussing it with me.
At length. Our perfunctory handshake had dissolved into two guys standing and talking about Europe. We are both the same age (he is a month older) and height, with somewhat analogous backgrounds (foreign parent, connections to Hawaii, played basketball, attended Ivy League law schools where we were on the law review), so on some level it seemed perfectly natural. I noticed that everyone around us sort of parted and allowed us to speak. He was doing most of the talking, to be sure, but he listened as I made an observation or comment. He clearly had Europe on the brain and I was the one guy in the room who’d asked him about it. So he wanted to talk some more.
At one point, I recall getting a little self-conscious, thinking: “Well, this is fucking weird. I’m standing here speaking to the President of the United States!” But that thought was only going to make me dissolve into a puddle of flop sweat, so I banished it from my brain and resumed having my nice civilized Euro chat, albeit in these rather unusual circumstances.
After what seemed like quite a while but was probably only a minute or so, he thanked me for my question and my efforts – as if! – and moved on. Which was fine with me – I’d received everything I could have asked for, and then some. I’d even gotten him to chuckle (when I commiserated with him on how hard it must be to get France and Germany moving in the same direction, observing that Sarkozy and Merkel don’t much like each other, he responded, “Tell me about it!”)
My bundler friend immediately approached me, with new respect and curiosity in her eyes. Her exalted fundraising status had permitted her and a few other similar donors a private audience with the President before his address, but she wanted to know what he and I had been talking about. I smiled and joked, “just guy stuff.” She didn’t see the humor – this was serious business! – and pressed me for an answer. Which I was only too happy to provide.
I was elated. I half-expected one of the President’s staff to slip me a note asking me to come back to the White House for a special briefing session later that afternoon. Maybe I would be appointed special envoy to Europe. Alas, the rich fantasy life that my head started spinning stayed just that – a fantasy. But my meeting with the President had been reality. All that was left, after spending some time basking in the afterglow, was to get to work helping reelect him.