Top Obama Advisor Makes West Wing Exit

Melody Barnes is leaving her post as director of the administration's Domestic Policy Council. Barnes was influential in crafting some of the president's major initiatives including health care and economic legislation. Host Michel Martin speaks with Barnes about her achievements and the president's popularity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, when your kids thank you for giving them books for the holidays, do you want them to mean it? Then listen in for our guide to the best children's books for the gift giving season. That conversation in a few minutes. And later in the program, we have a special in-studio performance and conversation with superstar Tori Amos. So please stay with us. But first, a newsmaker interview with President Obama's top domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, who is actually leaving the West Wing.

Barnes has been part of Mr. Obama's team since his 2008 campaign. She was one of a handful of women to serve in top posts at the start of the administration. As director of the Domestic Policy Council, Barnes was influential in crafting some of the administration's major initiatives, including health care, the stimulus package, and education policy. She's been a guest on this program a number of times during her time in the administration, and we're pleased to welcome her once again. Welcome back, thank you for joining us.

MELODY BARNES: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you know, it's such a cliche that any time anybody leaves a top post in Washington, they always say - unless you're Rahm Emanuel and you're running – leaving to run for mayor of Chicago, people always say...

BARNES: I have an announcement. Just joking.

MARTIN: Well, that's what - that was my question, is - why are you leaving?

BARNES: It's been an amazing three years. I couldn't have imagined this several years ago, and such an honor to serve the American people and this president, but I think anyone who's had a job here can tell you that after a period of time, after not seeing your friends or your family or your spouse for very long, there comes a time when you say, I have done wonderful work, it's been an honor, but it's time to spend some time with my husband that I married after coming to the White House and my parents who I love dearly but haven't really been able to see that much over the past few years.

MARTIN: Let me just play this short clip, and you were on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" earlier this month and host Jon Stewart says that you had a certain glow and that could be interpreted a number of ways, but he'll explain. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

JON STEWART: When are you leaving?

BARNES: At the end of the year.

STEWART: Let me tell you how I know that. Look at how happy you are. Look at your smiling, radiant, excited face. We had Austen Goolsby on...

BARNES: Yes.

STEWART: ...two weeks before he left. He had that same freaky, giddy excitement.

BARNES: It's a mixture of emotions.

STEWART: No, no, it didn't look like a mixture. That ain't a mixture. That's pure joy.

MARTIN: But there is a question there, though, that it is a grueling job. I mean every job in the White House is a grueling job. I can't think of one that isn't. As a former White House correspondent, I feel like I can attest to that, but this is a particular group of people who seem to have come into office with such high hopes, with such a sense of enthusiasm. I mean and of course some of it's youth. A lot of people who are taking these positions were younger on average than the people that they were replacing.

Is there something, do you think, about this particular tenure that was particularly grueling or do you think that this is just the way it is?

BARNES: Well, from talking to friends who have held posts in previous White Houses, I think you're absolutely right, and your experience, as you said, attests to that as well. It is by definition, by nature, a relentless set of issues and complex problems that confront you every single day no matter what the times are, but obviously we came in at a time when and we were literally losing 750,000 jobs every single month. And you think about that and the impact on the economy, the impact on individuals and their lives, and our desire to come in and quickly pass a stimulus bill so that we could address those issues. Also save the auto industry, and that was something the president very courageously took on and has been quite successful. And then tried to pass healthcare and the biggest higher education reform since the GI Bill passed decades ago. And all of that was just, you know, within the first year.

So we had big goals that we wanted to achieve to start to turn around the economy and stabilize it, but also put the country on a trajectory of growth.

MARTIN: Well, you named a number of things there. Which of those things do you view as your top achievement, if you had to pick one?

BARNES: Well, obviously for the president I would say making sure that we create jobs and stabilizing the economy is priority one, two, and three, but I would also say for me looking to the long term that the work that we've done on education is so important. It's important for the big picture for our economy, but when you think about how we've been able to start to turn around schools to reshape the education debate and what impact that will literally have, that's going to be a game changer for children.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about education, if you would, that one of the education programs that this administration advances, This Race to the Top initiative, this is a program where states compete for federal grants. These are worth millions of dollars. In the latest round of the program this year, nine states won and are awaiting really significant awards, like $50 million dollars each, but that means there are 35 other states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that didn't win and there are people who say that all this does is promote the same kind of all or nothing approach that just really replicates or reinforces, if you don't mind my saying that, existing inequities.

Because those who have can get - they're in a position to get. Those who don't have, or aren't in the position to compete, don't get. What do you say to that?

BARNES: Well, I would say to people, look at our overall education agenda. Yes, we've talked about and we are very proud of Race to the Top, because even for those states that didn't win Race to the Top grants, so many states - in fact, 46 states in the district have stepped forward to adopt college and career-ready standards. So we now have people focused on the fact that when our children graduate from high school, they have to be ready to go on and get a college degree on some - or a two year degree or some kind of - be prepared for a career, or some kind of job training.

That standard is important because heretofore we've had states that have been, in fact, lowering their standards. Good for them, not good for our kids. And then on the other end of the spectrum, making sure that students who are then prepared to go to college have access. So growing the Pell grant, making sure that students who have been really saddled with a lot of long term debt now have a route to lift some of that debt burden off of them with our pay-as-you-earn program, supporting minority-serving institutions and supporting innovation in our community colleges.

So this has been a well-rounded education portfolio that we've advanced since day one.

MARTIN: If you have just tuned in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're speaking with Melody Barnes. She's director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She's stepping down from her post at the beginning of the year and we're talking about her time in office, and whatever else is on her mind, or my mind. We have to talk about healthcare, which has to be, I think it's fair to say, the most controversial of President Obama's initiatives. Do you agree with that assessment?

BARNES: I think it's - obviously it has been very controversial because it was a long time coming. He had to use so much political capital to get it done and obviously with this case going up to the Supreme Court and Republicans working hard to try and repeal healthcare, it keeps it front and center.

MARTIN: Well, that - but that was my question, and the question that I had here, and as you mentioned - just to clarify for those who weren't aware - the Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether the law is constitutional in March and a ruling is expected in June. The question I had is, I think most people agree that we have a problem in this country. This is an affluent country and yet our health indicators in terms of, you know, infant mortality and life expectancy and all these things are not comparable to, you know, countries that are similar, and so most people agree that there's something wrong here.

I'm wondering why you think it is that this effort has engendered the kind of kind of vicious response that it has. Do you think it is ultimately philosophical, that feel - that a number of people feel they just don't believe that government should be involved, or involved to this extent, in something that can be so personal? Do you think it is fundamentally political, that some people just want to deny the president a victory? Do you think it is fundamentally perhaps racial?

BARNES: I think it's the combination of the philosophical and the political. The philosophical for the reasons that you mentioned. How are we going to approach this significant problem? We've been having this debate literally for decades.

I worked for Senator Kennedy for many years. As you know, he, in his 1980 campaign was talking about health care and there was an incremental approach to try and address this problem, but ultimately, we realize, both to address the issue of cost and the issue of coverage that we were going to have to take a big macro view if we were actually going to solve those two problems.

But people have different views about how we're going to do that and I think that's the philosophical. And we saw that play out for an extremely long period of time in Congress, which also I think started to shape the views of the American public on this issue.

At the same time, I think it's also political. Because we've been fighting for this, literally, for decades, the fact that this president made a promise during the campaign, came into office and within just over a year was able to sign a bill into law to address this issue, many people wanted to deny him that victory. He sees it as a victory for the American public and because we see support growing for the work that we've done, because people have been able to benefit from it, you know, just recently, we announced that 2.5 million young adults have health care now that they didn't have just over a year ago.

We know that seniors are benefiting through wellness visits, through rebates on prescription drugs. All of these things wouldn't have been possible if we hadn't passed health care, so we know the support is growing for it, but people want to continue that fight to deny the American people, we believe, but for those individuals they think deny this president a victory on health care.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but before we do, I do want to ask you about the president's poll numbers. When he came into office - well, I think it's - he came into office on a high. I think that that's, you know, pretty clear. He had a very clear victory at the polls, tremendous popularity, tremendous turnout, a tremendous response at his inauguration.

According to the Gallop Poll, he's at right around a 42 percent approval rating, which is much better than the 9 percent approval rating Congress has in some polls, but what does that mean?

BARNES: I think it means that this country over the last few years has been buffered by one storm after another and Americans are feeling this, literally, at their kitchen tables. And this is no joke. People are worried about how they're going to make ends meet, how they're going to send their kids to college. They're worried because their spouse is out of a job or a cousin is living with them because they're out of a job. There are housing foreclosures. The list goes on and on and on.

And even though we've been able to, through the stimulus bill, to stabilize the economy, though the president is pressing for the American Jobs Act and, most recently, this big push for the payroll tax cut to put $1,000 in the pockets of the American people, even as time's running out in these last 10 or so days. People are hurting and, as a result of that, that's I think reflected in the concern and the angst and that gets reflected in these numbers.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll continue our conversation for a few more minutes with Melody Barnes, the outgoing director of the Domestic Policy Council. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, kids' books recommendations from Loriene Roy, the former head of the American Library Association. She'll be with us in a few minutes.

But first, a few more minutes with Melody Barnes. She is leaving the west wing, her post as domestic policy adviser to the president. Melody, thanks for staying with us.

BARNES: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Just a couple more questions for you. There have been grumblings about how this White House has sometimes functioned as a boys club. Some people attributed that to the style of former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Some people attributed that to the fact that, you know, the president enjoyed, you know, some rounds of basketball mainly with - well, exclusively with male, you know, colleagues.

You broke the gender barrier, as it were, invited to join one of President Obama's golf outings and you did report that you were $10 richer at the end of that, although I don't believe there was a second source.

But I do want to ask, was there any merit to those criticisms?

BARNES: I have found since I've been here, you know, Rahm, the president, Bill Daley, the current chief of staff and all of my colleagues here, male and female, one, have become such terrific friends of mine and they are trusted friends. There is a bond and I said this recently at a farewell party. There is a bond that develops when you go through fire with people and that's what it's been like in dealing with these really complex issues that we've dealt with since we walked in from day one. And I will treasure those relationships.

We all come in with our backgrounds and expertise and points of view and the president encourages in a civil way, but he encourages the debate. He wants to hear different opinions and those can be rough and tumble debates, though respectful. That's where the challenges are, you know, getting the answer right, facing these complex problems and coming up with good solutions.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Forgive me. What does that have to do with whether it's a boys club or not?

BARNES: But...

MARTIN: There are plenty of women who are capable of having rough and tumble debates.

BARNES: But - no.

MARTIN: The question is whether they were listened to when they participated in those debates and whether they were given the respect commensurate with their roles and that's the question, isn't it?

BARNES: But that's also my point. I'm saying this is a tough office building to work in, male or female. But in the course of doing those things, having those debates, I haven't felt as though this is a boys club. I felt like this is just a place where the debate is vibrant and animated and everyone's opinion gets put on the table and respected.

There are arguments that I've won. There are debates that I've lost. And my colleagues would tell you the same and I don't think that gender is reflected in any of that. And, at the same time - and this also responds to your question - as I was saying, I will take these relationships and these friendships that I have developed past the White House gate. That speaks, I think, volumes to the kind of environment in which all of us have worked for the past three years.

MARTIN: When we started our conversation by asking what was your - what do you think your most important accomplishments have been, but apart from that, was there a favorite moment that you had? I mean, this is a rare opportunity to, you know, work at that level. It's something that very few people have to work that closely with the President of the United States, serving the American people.

Is there a favorite moment that sticks out in your mind that you'll tell people about or maybe that you aren't going to tell a lot of people about and you just want to cherish?

BARNES: There are certainly many, many cherished moments. I remember the night that health care passed. I will never forget that evening and it was very late, if you'll remember, by the time it had passed Congress and, gathered with the president and my colleagues in the residence on the balcony because it was an unusually warm March evening, and reflecting on that and the fact that, while the election obviously was game changing and historical, that that moment was the moment that we had all worked so hard for, to be able to do something so significant for the American people, so that will always be a cherished moment.

And there are many others that are personal to me. Having my parents come here very recently and meet the president and the first lady and I think about all that they've been through, all that they've worked for and being able to introduce them to the president, I will always hold that very, very dear. And the respect and kindness with which the president and the first lady treated them.

MARTIN: And what are you looking forward to most when you turn in your Blackberry on January 2nd or 3rd or whatever it is? What's going to be your favorite thing then?

BARNES: Turning in the Blackberry in and of itself. But also that first morning when I don't have to be showered, dressed and coherent at a 7:30 meeting. I'm looking forward to that one, too.

MARTIN: Melody Barnes is the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She steps down at the very beginning of next year. She was kind enough to join us from the White House. Congratulations, Melody. Thank you so much for joining us.

BARNES: Great. It is my pleasure. Thank you so much.

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