AP NEWS

Greenwich native nears end of journey with Obama

January 10, 2017

WASHINGTON — Jen Psaki, President Barack Obama’s communications director, will have a lot of time to reflect on life in the White House after her Jan. 20 departure. She plans to do much of it at library story hours and Smithsonian trips with her 18-month-old daughter, Genevieve.

With deep roots in Fairfield County, including all-state honors in the backstroke at Greenwich High School, Psaki has managed Obama’s communications for almost two years. She started as deputy press secretary in 2009 and went on to become State Department spokeswoman before returning to the White House in 2015.

The 38-year-old Psaki appeared with close Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett at a briefing Monday on Obama’s farewell address in Chicago, which takes place Tuesday night. The president will use the speech not so much to draw a sharp contrast between himself and President-elect Donald Trump, but rather, to encourage and inspire a new wave of Democrats to carry the party’s banner forward.

The briefing gave Psaki a chance to do some quick reflecting on what went right and what went wrong in the eight years of the Obama presidency, especially since the election of Trump could be viewed as a wholesale rejection of Obama’s communications skills.

Regrets or no regrets?

“There were assumptions made about communicating that were inaccurate,” Psaki said.

One such assumption: “That everything the president said would be heard around the world. That’s not how people consume information, certainly not now.”

Unlike previous presidents, Obama couldn’t be content with addressing newspaper reporters and television correspondents.

In a fractured media landscape with many consumers relying on news outlets that fit their own political views, the president’s words were often passed through ideological filters.

“It took us some time to recognize the bully pulpit is not what it once was,” Psaki said. “That was a journey.”

Exhibit A might have been the inability to sell the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — to an increasingly skeptical public.

Even though 20 million or more Americans ended up getting health insurance through expanded Medicaid, subsidies or purchases on government-run exchanges, polls showed much of the public agreed with the Republican view that it was a failure.

“What we know now is that what is most impactful is the stories of individuals and people, not graphs and statistics,” she said. “That was a lesson that was hard learned.”

On the other hand, Obama’s poll numbers remain high and “his popularity doesn’t transfer to other candidates,” Psaki said.

Although Obama “campaigned his heart out” for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he is not “able himself to wave a wand and get people elected. That’s not how democracy works and probably how it shouldn’t work.’’

Psaki has said she intends to take some time off, spend time with her daughter and husband Greg Mecher, and take a number of deep breaths before deciding her next move.

She calls the impending story hours and museum trips with daughter in tow “a form of reflection on its own.”

Contact Dan Freedman at dan@hearstdc.com