Obama aide tells Forum Club: Engage with those who think differently

10:58 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 Local
David Simas with President Obama. (Google Images / Wikimedia Commons)

For David Simas, Obama Foundation CEO and former White House political director, the country’s hope lies in Americans’ ability to elevate citizenship over partisanship.

The polls and eight years of Pennsylvania Avenue experience make it clear that’s an uphill battle, he conceded Tuesday at a luncheon of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.

But he learned it’s possible from his upbringing as the son of Portuguese immigrants in Taunton, Mass. When his mother lost two fingers working in a silver factory and a couple of months later his father was injured in a forklift accident at a textile plant, community surrounded the family and helped it back on its feet, he said.

“These two people had done one of the most courageous things anyone can do, leave everything behind, go to a place where they did not speak the language or know the culture … because of this audacious dream they had of constructing something better for children they did not yet have, and found themselves at the mercy of the community,” he said.

Years later, when Simas would get off a bus in Lafayette Square and walk into the White House, he said, he was keenly aware he wasn’t there because of extraordinary talent, grit or resilience, though he’d worked hard.

“But more importantly, when I fell or my family fell, there were always people in the community to lift me up. I am part of a community,” he said — not left, right, Democrat or Republican. “American.”

He would feel that again, landing in Air Force One with the President in Lisbon, at the same airport his parents had left in poverty.

Simas majored in politics at Stonehill College, near his hometown and earned a law degree from Boston College. He became deputy chief of staff to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in 2007 and joined the Obama Administration in 2009 as a deputy assistant to the President, working with senior advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe.

He served as director of opinion research for Obama’s reelection in 2012 and returned to the White House as assistant to the President and director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. An important part of his job, he said, was traveling outside the D.C. Beltway every few weeks, listening to people in their communities about what they cared about.

He would bring those opinions back to his colleagues, who were doing their jobs in a way they felt would most benefit the country, and say to them, “‘Let me tell you what half the country thinks about this.’”

When you’re in the White House, he said, half the country believes the choice you’re making is wrong or bad, a small percentage question your motives, half believe your intentions are not in the service of the public but for political reasons. And during the Obama years, at least half the country was living through the effects of a recession so deep it made them question their sense of America and wanted it back the way it was before.

“The president gave me that space every single day to force all my colleagues and myself to question our assumptions,” Simas said.

No matter how many times you walk into the Oval Office, he said, “there is a transcendent feeling that you’re dealing with the history of a people. It was so important for the president of the United States, Barack Obama, in that room, to have all of us reflect not just our opinions but that of a cross section of Americans.”

That particularly mattered because “change in Washington never happens from the top down,” he said.

He recalled a trip he made with the President in 2014, to the LBJ presidential library in Austin, Texas, for the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Words on the library wall said Voting Rights, Civil Rights, Medicare, Medicaid, Immigration. “When I saw the word, ‘Immigration,’ I started to cry. The President said, ‘Really? Come on, man.’ ”

“It was the Immigration Act of 1965 that allowed me to be there in that room,” Simas said.

Also in the room was a gospel singer watching a video of herself singing at a freedom rally in 1963. Standing behind her was John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights legend.

A son of Portuguese immigrants who became assistant to the president of the United States also was there, “not because of the courage of a member of Congress who signed the law but because of hundreds of thousands of people who decided something needed to change and changed it,” he said. “Civil rights passed not because LBJ signed it or because of all the votes in Congress. It passed because of hundreds of thousands of people like John Lewis.”

The goal of the Obama Foundation is to encourage Americans to re-engage with people they disagree with, to emerge from ideological silos and see their humanity rather than their differences, he said. The idea, Simas said, is that the most powerful office at the heart of democracy is that of citizen.