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Lisa Brown '75: Inside Obama's In-Box

As Staff Secretary to the President, Lisa Brown ’75 Was Gatekeeper-in-Chief

“Labor omnia vincet,” Lisa Brown ’75 recites from her chair in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. “Is that still the School’s motto?”

Lisa knows a thing or two about hard work. She is one of Washington’s top lawyers, known for her pro bono work to benefit people with disabilities and economic disadvantages. During the Clinton Administration she served as Counsel to Vice President Gore and later as Executive Director of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. And from 2009 to 2011, she managed the in- and out-box of perhaps the busiest man in the world: the President of the United States.

Job Description: Traffic Cop, School Teacher, Honest Broker

“It is essentially the last stop for paper before it gets to the President,” says Lisa, describing the behind-the-scenes role of Staff Secretary. “For a job that’s critically important for the President, it’s interesting because it’s not one that most people understand.”

Lisa likens the task of compiling the President’s evening reading, which consists of briefing and decision memos, to the job of a traffic cop, directing important, timely and complete material to the President’s desk — and redirecting incomplete or less urgent items elsewhere.

“Then there’s the school teacher part,” she says, “which is making sure that it is well-written, that it makes sense. But we were never expected to be the experts. What we had was the broader perspective of the various issues before the President.”

Finally, Lisa as well as several former Staff Secretaries describe the role as “honest broker,” responsible for ensuring that any relevant senior advisors have a chance to weigh in so that the final draft of a memo presents a full and balanced picture of the issue.

“You need to have good political radar, but it is not about making decisions based on what’s going to help him or hurt him politically,” says Lisa. “It is all about, how do you enable the President of the United States to operate as efficiently and effectively as he can?”

Obama’s Work Style: Leader and Decider

The Staff Secretary becomes intimately familiar with a President’s work habits and personal style. Does he prefer shorter memos, like Richard Nixon? Does he read more carefully on weekends at Camp David, like George W. Bush?

Lisa remarked that President Obama often turned around memos in a day with a decision made or astute questions in the margins. “And he never forgets anything. So the worst mistake you can make, if you go into a meeting, is to start to brief him on the paper that you’ve already given him because he’s already read that, ‘Thank you very much, and here’s my question.’

“It gives me such a tremendous respect for any President, but particularly this one. You look at the number of crises that this President has had to deal with and at the issues that he’s had to master, and he does it. He inevitably puts his own personal imprint on it. This is a man who leads and decides.”

Hard Work: From Latin Class to Law School

Lisa’s preparation for the often grueling, 24-hour job of Staff Secretary started at Potomac.

“Mrs. Rose!” she interjects when the conversation turns to transformative teaching. “She is certainly the most memorable teacher that I had, and the hardest. I remember hours on the telephone with one of my classmates every night going over our Latin homework.”

Lisa and her sisters, Sarah Brown O'Hagan '76 and Marcia Brown '79, loved learning and going to School. “I think the School inculcated that in us. Both Potomac and my dad emphasized that, if you work hard, you can do whatever you want. And from both my parents, there was this expectation that if you’re lucky enough to have this great education and to have been given a lot, that you should give back.”

Beginning with that foundation, Lisa went on to find her focus at the University of Chicago Law School, where it became clear to her how many people in need of lawyers could not afford them. “I’ve always, always had a desire to contribute to my community, whether it was doing pro bono work when I was in private practice, working for the government, or working for a nonprofit.”

Plan to Make a Difference, Not a Name for Yourself

Today Lisa works in the Office of Management and Budget running a set of presidential management initiatives. Her career has been fascinating and rewarding. And lucky, too.

“You can’t plan to work in the White House,” she says. Instead of charting a path with the West Wing in mind, young people should get involved in something they’re passionate about. “Get involved and work to make a difference — you never know where that will lead you. Especially today with the budgetary situation, many complicated problems really need to be solved by the public and private sectors working together.”

"Both Potomac and my dad emphasized that, if you work hard, you can do whatever you want."  

Lisa Brown '75, Former Staff secretary to the president