Cold calls. Your professors love them. You fear them. Your ed rep crushes them. We think it’s about time that this HBS staple gets the rebranding it deserves. Each week, The Harbus chats with a randomly selected member of the student body. This week, Katie Peek had a nice talk with John Oxtoby (NC) on his work at the White House. Katie got John’s expert opinion on President Obama’s recent debate performance and hears what it was like to bum a ride on Air Force One.
KP: Why don’t you tell me a little about what you were doing before school?
JO: Right out of school I did a few years on the Obama campaign, then I spent the last 3 and a half years working in the White House, first on Special Projects for one of the President’s Senior Advisors Valerie Jarrett, then staffing the President’s Job Council, an advisory board of business leaders who advise the President on economic policy. Then this summer I did an internship in Shanghai with Intel.
KP: Are you hoping to go back to the public sector after school?
JO: I think I’m looking more to shift gears and use this time to assess kind of what my priorities will be, what I want to try next, etc.
KP: Now that we’ve got a little context established, I know you watched the debate last night. Any key takeaways?
JO: I think Governor Romney was clearly the guy who thoroughly read his cases a few times before class, and was obviously very prepared and did a great job. I was a little worried we wouldn’t get to all the substance but breathed a sigh of relief when Big Bird came up [bitter laughter and authorial discomfort!] But look, it was a tough night for the President, but he viewed it more as speaking to the American people and less as a debate context, which I think didn’t come off as well.
KP: What do you think happened exactly? Such a profoundly eloquent guy, such an impassioned orator typically… I feel like he was better in the Clinton debates.
JO: Well, he started off pretty slow in those, and it actually frustrated a lot of his supporters. I think these things tend to be overblown in one direction or another- you’re hearing a lot of loud voices saying how poorly Obama did and how this is going to shake up the race, but if he’d had a good performance it would have been overdone in that direction, and vice versa. On balance he’ll lose a few news cycles but this debate isn’t the be-all, end-all.
KP: And is there anything either in the last 4 years or during this campaign you wish President Obama had done differently, and if so what?
JO: I think he made a good faith effort to really find common ground and make progress on really important issues like energy policy and the deficit; it was a really tough period when he came into office, and what he was able to get done I think was pretty substantial
KP: Was there anything last night that made your blood particularly boil?
JO:[long, highly media-trained pause] I think, uh….. Can I pass? [Another pause] One thing that’s always funny about debates in general is you have months of the Romney camp hammering the Obama camp, and Obama hammering Romney, and then in the days before the debate you enter bizarre-world. Suddenly you hear the Romney people calling Obama one of the greatest orators in presidential history, and the Obama people saying Romney’s one of the most effective debaters they’ve ever seen—it all becomes the expectations game.
KP: There’s obviously a lot of talk about the HBS Bubble and I think a lot of us would agree it’s a pretty real thing; do you find HBS students more or less politically energized than you expected?
JO: Overall people have been pretty engaged. I’ve been surprised the extent to which a lot of the international students are interested in and excited about US Politics and it’s great hearing their perspectives on it.
KP: Would you call these perspectives generally admiring of the sophistication and nuance of our political dialogue?
JO: I think there’s actually less cynicism about our process from folks outside of the US, or that’s been my experience so far.
KP: All right, last question, was there ever a moment in DC where you really had to stop and think, “Wow, I’ve really made it”?
JO: Well, my mom’s side of the family is all from Kansas and Missouri and they’re all pretty conservative. As you can imagine we had lots of conversations while I was on the campaign, and it was pretty amazing to be able to bring some of them around to vote for Obama, and even more so to see them fired up and energized around the process after a lifetime of being really cynical about it. The best part though was on one of our trips, I got to ride on Air Force One. What you typically do is call your family from the plane. So I got to get on the phone with them, and after going with them on such a journey about their views and their hopes for America, it was just an incredible moment to be able to share with them.
KP: Did you put Obama on the phone next?
JO: He was playing spades in the conference room, so I knew better than to break his concentration.