Mixing Board Studio Session: Obama Comms Aide Eric Schultz on ‘Going Direct’, Liars, WH Briefings & More
Before the bad man, Mixing Board community member Eric Schultz was the White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary and Special Assistant to President Barack Obama. Schultz advised the President, spoke on behalf of the Administration in White House briefings, and helped manage the Administration’s proactive messaging and news-of-the-day responses. He’s been a senior advisor to President Obama since 44’s administration and heads a boutique public affairs firm offering his expertise to clients in the political, financial, technology and entertainment sectors.
Here are excerpts from this week’s Studio Session between Eric and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Eric and Sean talk about his time in the White House, Obama’s response to his successor and the importance of telling the truth from the podium.
SG: Consulting for a former president is a pretty unique job. Especially one who has to watch a subsequent administration completely destroy everything he did. Give us a window into that world.
ES: Much like everything else about Barack Obama’s public career, that post-presidency was also the first of its kind. He wanted nothing more than the traditional post-presidency where he could step out of the limelight, and have a life with his family, and pursue a bunch of different things that he felt were worthy of his time. Obviously, the political dynamic did not afford him all the latitude that he would’ve liked. We had to come up with a strategy for that. The scrutiny from the Trump administration took two paths. One was the constant attack on policies, legacy, record, accomplishments, and rolling a lot of those back. We mostly anticipated this and worked with our allies, partners, members of Congress and our alumni to respond to these efforts.
What I didn’t really anticipate was the totally wacky personal attacks, the stuff about wiretapping headquarters, and the like. We were caught off guard, and to be frank, probably shouldn’t have been. So, we just had to put a whole bunch of systems in place to manage the response to that. Thankfully, I worked in President Obama’s personal office where we oversaw the entire constellation of activities that happen under his name. The Barack Obama Foundation, our partnership with Netflix, Higher Ground Productions, his political activity, his book, his speaking engagements, all of that stuff. We try and tell a singular story, because obviously, even though those are operations that are mostly happening independently, when people see Barack Obama, they don’t consume him in those different silos.
Some of this is air traffic control where I just de-conflicting what’s happening on Tuesday, but a lot of it’s making sure that it’s consistent with the public profile that he wants to have in the post-presidency.
SG: There were a lot of times where I know there were people, myself included, who were just like, “Where is Obama, man? How come he’s not saying anything? Democracy’s being destroyed, and where’s our knight in shining armor?” But I assume there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that we didn’t know about.
ES: You’re in plenty of good company based on my inbox. Yeah, look, I think starting in January of 2017, in February and early that year, it became clear that it was in everyone else’s interest to bring Barack Obama into the fray, right? Democrats wanted a savior, Republicans wanted a foil, and the press just wanted clicks, and links, and so, we had to navigate that. Again, he wanted to resist the temptation to get pulled into that for a couple of reasons. One, he deeply valued the American tradition of a seamless passage of power, and felt that that’s important institutionally for the country. He always felt that he wanted to do the right thing, not necessarily what felt good in the moment. And our threshold was everyone wanted to hear from him all the time, but to what end? Right? What good was it going to do?
And his guiding principle was like, “Look, when I speak out, I take up all the oxygen in the room.” Right? Everyone focuses on him. He will lead the nightly news, and the story that day, that week, whatever will become about him and his engagement. And he really felt like in order for the Democratic party to move on, that other voices needed to be lifted up, and needed to be heard. And so, we spent a lot of time trying to help identify and support those voices to help lift them up.
I think that one very concrete example, to your point about where’s Obama, where’s Obama, where’s Obama? The ACA repeal fight, right? In the fall of 2017. Everyone’s wanting Barack Obama to speak out, speak out, speak out, and do more, and we did plenty of written statements, and posts, and it wasn’t a mystery where Barack Obama stood on the issue. But it was our evaluation that in order to get Republicans to stand for this, we couldn’t make this about Barack Obama. And I think if you go back to that vote at 2:00 AM when John McCain gave the thumbs down, I’m not sure if we had made that fight about Barack Obama and his legacy that we would’ve gotten John McCain’s vote.
Big picture, he wanted to speak out when it could have an effect. And so, if you look at some of the arc of those four years, we were quiet most of 2017. We ramp up in 2018 around the midterms when people could take action and get involved. Midterms are times where historically progressive liberal Democrats aren’t that engaged, and so we had a program to really ramp up activity then, and try and be a catalyst for folks to get involved. And then, once Democrats took over the House, and wanted to let them feel empowered.
And then, the same cycle happened again in 2020 where he felt like in order for the Democratic party to be successful, he wanted to put his thumb on the scale in the primary. That whatever candidate was going to emerge, he could play a unique role in helping unify the party. But he couldn’t do that if he was vouching for a candidate all along.
SG: I totally get it, and I just found it fascinating that by October of 2020, we were getting to a place where he was talking about the existential threat of democracy. This thing that we all felt, but he saved it for that moment. And I always felt like, “God, the guy must feel this before, clearly,” but he paused it for the moment that had the greatest impact.
ES: Exactly. Scarcity was our friend. If he was popping off on Hardball or Anderson Cooper, the Sunday shows, or holding press conferences this whole time, I’m not sure he would’ve had the outsized impact that we were able to have at moments like the convention speech, or the John Lewis funeral, or along the trail for Biden.
SG: Speaking of the president that we just had, as someone who worked in day in and day out with the press in the Obama administration for a long time, and then you saw this new administration come in, and operate with the press the way that they operated with them. Were there moments ever where you’re like, “Damn, they’re ridiculous, they’re liars, but I kind of am jealous. I’m a little bit envious of how they’re taking this approach. These are things that we only dreamed about.” Were there moments like that that you had?
ES: I think that’s a great question. I always thought their biggest strength was their shamelessness. They didn’t care if they were lying, and they didn’t care if what they said in two days turned out not to be true. They just said it, and they weren’t bound by any fidelity to truth, or to fact, or to their colleagues. And so, that I’m sure was very liberating compared to how thorough, and rigid, and rigorous we were in our process before Josh Earnest, or myself, or Jay Carney, or anyone went to the podium and said something. I thought that that was something to behold.
And then, look, I think that they had embarrassment of riches in terms of scandals, and problems, and just exploiting the ADD nature of the press that if there was something colossally bad happening at the department of transportation, it’s like — don’t worry, in two days, Ben Carson will have you beat. Don’t worry, Michael Flynn will say something over here. Just exploiting how fast the wick burns these days, I think they played that well.
And then, we should just give credit where it’s due, which is their owned channels, right? Obviously, Twitter is the most infamous mechanism, tactic of his. And I do think we were pretty lame about that early on. So, be smarter about leveraging your owned channels, and putting out content on your own terms. And so, I think that’s a lesson learned. I think Biden’s obviously better. I think everyone’s getting better successively.
SG: Speaking of being well-prepared for the podium, when you could be asked by a reporter any question in the world, how do you get ready for that?
ES: It’s a great question. And I actually think it’s worth taking two seconds to just walk through why I think the briefing is in the White House’s interest as a tradition. I think it’s important for democracy, I think it’s important to send a signal to the world that one of the president’s top aides stands up every day live on camera to take any question you’ve got from any reporter. I think that’s an important thing to happen, to do.
But I also think it’s in a White House’s parochial interest, because it is an internal forcing mechanism, which is the answer to your question. You have to figure out what you’re saying, and a message that you’re driving. And so, if there’s a news event around the world or around the country, everyone can know what the White House is saying by tuning into that briefing. And that gives the entire federal government, every agency, every sub cabinet, every ambassador around the world, every military officer, every Senator, every governor, every state, right? We all know what the White House is saying because Jen Psaki just said it. And so, you can shape the messaging. It’s a driver to shape the messaging no matter where you are.
The flip side of that is you have to have your shit together when you go out there. And the way we divided it is we had assistant press secretaries divided by topic. And so, we had someone to handle the entire economic portfolio, and we had someone who did all things climate and justice, then healthcare and veterans, and et cetera, et cetera. The NSC, the National Security Council, divides their portfolio by geography, so just regionally around the world. And all of these people would come together to prep the press secretary in advance of the briefing.
But those people are the endpoints. They have run a process that is thorough, and comprehensive, and inter-agency. And so, if you’re trying to figure out what to say about the Paris Climate deal, you’ve got to talk to the state department, you’ve got to talk to the EPA, you’ve got to talk to the Department of Defense. You’ve got to make sure that energy and EPA are all set. Your legislative affairs people who deal with Congress are all set, and your office of public engagement people who deal with the groups are all synced. The lawyers are on board, right? Everything that goes into that content has been thoroughly vetted, and ideally withstands the test of time, that isn’t later contradicted.
And I think we make fun of Washington-speak as being very anodyne, or safe, or sanitized, but there’s a reason, right? And Jen (Psaki) jokes about this now, you can move markets, you can mobilize armies, you can piss off allies, you can do a lot of stuff with your words in that podium. And so, I’m one who is in the be careful camp. And that’s why all of that work that the press people are overseeing has a huge backend process just to make sure everyone is aligned. And that when the press secretary says something, it is genuinely speaking for the entire federal government.
SG: I saw the huge briefing book that you got every day. I get all the work that goes into it. I get all the effort, but how do you remember all that?
ES: Yeah. Well, that is what’s annoying about Josh Earnest being so good at his job. He could remember it all. And it’s a reference tool, and so basically it’s indexed by topic. And so, you have the dividers. And the front page is one through 80, what topics are happening? And then, you can just easily flip to the right number. Most of it stays the same day to day, right? Because if you’re talking about the American Rescue Plan, right? We know what the messaging points are there. And so, I assume that most of Jen’s points on the American Rescue Plan have been the same for weeks now.
Now, if Mitch McConnell says something crazy about it, that would be refreshed at the top, like here’s what McConnell just said, here’s our response. Or if Bernie Sanders says, “It didn’t go far enough,” here’s what Bernie said, here’s our response. And so, I think most of it is staying the same day to day, but just being dusted off with the news of the day stuff that they’ll want to be prepared with.
SG: Your Twitter personality, you’re obviously a very kind guy, very thoughtful, but you let it out on Twitter a little bit. And most of it is directed towards I would say media hypocrisies. The Washington game stuff. Tell us about ‘checking the refs’, how much of that is strategic, how much of it is emotional, and how much of it you think actually needs to change so we have a healthy dialogue moving forward?
ES: Yeah. I think it’s probably 100% emotional and 0% strategic. Because again, it’s probably the corollary to where’s Obama? Why isn’t he saving us? Just shouting things into the universe.
I do think there’s a lot of open questions for the press, and I think that we’re in such a serious moment with really hard stuff that our country’s grappling with. And obviously, the pandemic, the economic conditions, racial strife, democracy and really fundamental building blocks being heard in Washington, your right to vote, gun violence, right? There’s all this really serious stuff. And I think that a lot of the press really rose to the occasion, right? For a couple years, we were teetering on Banana Republic, and the press was like the one guard rail we had. And before Democrats had the House, we really had nothing.
And so, I credit the press for rising to the occasion in some instances. And then, I worry that they’re not in others, right? I worry that we’re still like, “Who’s up? Who’s down? West Wing. The five best lines of Kevin McCarthy’s speech, and here’s what you need to know about what happened behind the scenes at CPAC,” right?
We’re having this conversation in Washington, which in good times can be fine, right? It’s not that important. But I think that one of the reasons we have this disconnect between people tuning out real journalism, people not paying attention to what’s happening, it’s a totally disconnected conversation between what’s happening in Washington, and what people are thinking, and living, and breathing in their houses, in their homes with their families.
And I really, if I could wish for one thing, it would be not a crossfire type debate about whatever, and more just a conversation about, “Hey, look at what is happening in Washington, and here’s what this means for you, and your bank account, your schools, your ability to get a vaccine, your police department.” Right? And there’s some outlets that do this wonderfully. I think of Vox, and I think that being able to bridge that gap would just be really important for the country, and just democracy, small “d”.
SG: There’s been this conversation among some people in Silicon Valley about — is the press really necessary? Can we just go direct? Can we just tell our own story? Why don’t we build our own media studio inside of our business? I think there’s go direct because I want to avoid the press, but then there’s also go direct because there’s a valuable story to tell that isn’t being told. What is your sense on where that’s headed, and how that plays out?
ES: Yeah. I’m for all the above. I’m for earned media, paid media, owned media. I think we live in this hyper fragmented, kinetic environment. And so, if you have a story to tell, you can’t leave anything on the table. But I do think just “going direct” is a little lazy. I think that it’s a little fall back. And I go back to some of the tactics we used in the White House, and again, by no means are we the gold standard. I didn’t work on the ’08 campaign, but obviously that campaign rewrote the playbook in terms of how to communicate with voters, right? They revolutionized the entire apparatus.
I think what they will say is once they got in the White House, they reverted back to all the old ways of doing business, right? They sent out the schedule at 5:00p at night, do the briefing one hour a day, and the next day at 1:00p. It just became very rote. And I think not until we got to later in the administration did we change things up, and realize that we need to reach people where they’re at.
President Obama was the first president to visit the Arctic, and that was the time where we were trying to sell the Paris Climate Accord, which was being negotiated. And so, we went to the Arctic. We didn’t sit down with 60 Minutes for the Washington Post, but we brought Bear Grylls, right? This outdoorsman who has this show on National Geographic. We got NBC to put it in prime time. And Barack Obama and Bear Grylls are running around chasing live salmon, and eating with their hands.
And so, our view was if you’re not following the day-to-day, minute by minute blow of the Paris Climate negotiations, but you just care about clean air and clean water, and you like the outdoors, maybe this is a way to breakthrough to you.
In 2016, we went to Vietnam and Laos, and we announced a $90 million program to clean up the unexploded ordinances that were killing people decades later. And again, who did we sit down with there? Anthony Bourdain, right? We wanted to talk to somebody who reached a broader audience that wasn’t just necessarily political, or tuned into news of the day there, we wanted to show the importance of people to people interaction, mixing cultures, enjoying each other’s food and tradition.
President Obama was the first sitting president to go on late night television, which now seems so boring, but at that time you had the David Gergens of the world be like, “Oh my God, they’re debasing the office of the presidency.” He was the first sitting president to go on daytime television.
It’s a lot of growing pains for all involved, but that’s why I think just direct to camera, doing your own media is fine. That’s one peg of the stool. But finding audiences where they are already at was our operating ethos in the White House. And to me, that is the special sauce, which is how you can connect with people in the space where they’re already consuming information.
SG: Let’s look inward for a second in the communications industry. Obviously, the Trump administration’s media strategy was lying, and you had a press secretary that got up to the podium and lied. And so for a lot of people, the model in their mind is, “Well, that’s just what press secretaries do. They lie, and that’s their job.” And therefore, people in comms, they lie, too. That’s their job. And I’m always taken aback by when reporters talk about people who lie.They’ve worked for well-known companies, including those in Silicon Valley. Maybe I’m just super old school. I’ve never lied, ever. But how do we get to a place where we make it very clear that, you should not be working in this industry if you do that. You should not be rewarded. You should not have a job. I don’t care if you work for a Fortune 10 company, or you work for a next hot startup, or you work for the president. If you do that, you’re done. What do you see as the ramifications of the amount of untruths that we’ve had to deal with?
ES: I could not agree more. To me, once you cede your credibility, it’s impossible to gain it back. And that’s not to say that you don’t put your best spin on the ball, you don’t get out there and aggressively make your case, but once you say something knowingly untrue, I believe that’s going to dog you forever.
And it’s very, very hard to rebuild your credibility after you’ve given it away. And I might have a little bit of a rosier view than you on this, because I’ll just take Sean Spicer as an example. Sean was fairly well-respected in Washington before going to the White House. In this cadre of sort of Republican operatives that reporters respected, that was in the know. One of the few Republican operatives that people would rely on, and talk to, and in the inner circle of top strategists in DC. He was humiliated based on his experience, right? He’s on Dancing with the Stars and Newsmax, and he is relegated to the fringe of American politics right now.
To me, that’s a case study in what can happen, right? He came in with a ton of credibility, and a public profile that was generally well-respected, and very legitimate Republican operative, and look at where he is now.
This might be too rosy, but I actually think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that yes, your credibility does matter. And it’s something that I tell young people going into this industry that no matter how hot the story is that you’re working on in that moment, or no matter what you think is at stake in whatever your project, or story, or piece, or article, whatever, your long term reputation is just profoundly more important, and you cannot sacrifice one for the other. And so, your long term credibility is your only calling card and path. And once that goes away, I don’t think it’s easy to gain it back.
SG: When you walk into the West Wing, you almost have to forget how weird it is in order to do your daily job. What is the weirdest moment that you had where you’re just like, “Okay, sorry. This is even too weird for my job”?
ES: The president and the first lady did a date night in New York. And I’m sure most of you don’t know this, but when any president travels to New York, they land at LaGuardia on Air Force One, and then take a helicopter Marine One into Manhattan. Otherwise, it’d just be gridlock.
And so, on one of my first trips with President Obama, we’re on Marine One going into Manhattan, in the Isle of Manhattan, and he turns to me and says, “Eric, have you ever seen this view going into New York?” And I said, “No.” It was my first trip. And he’s like, “Well, wait until you see it, and wait until you see the Statue of Liberty.” And so, he asks his military aid, “Which side will the Statue of Liberty be on?” And the aid responses, “Sir, which side would you like it to be on?”
That was a moment that I’ll just never forget.
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This interview is part of a regular series of “Studio Sessions” with Mixing Board members. The live interview includes the Mixing Board community and invited guests. We regularly share highlights of many of those conversations here.