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Desi Making Waves

By Shweta Jha

Neera Tanden: Sprinting Toward the Finish Line

Obama’s Campaign Aide Talks About Life on the Trail (It’s Just As Hectic As We Thought)

In many ways Neera Tanden's life is just like yours or mine. She finds herself constantly juggling work and family responsibilities. Most days she eats lunch at her desk – some days it's just coffee. Paris, Tanden says, is the most romantic city in the world. She loves Sex and the City – the series and the movie – and if you're wondering, Carrie and Miranda are her favorite characters.

But other parts of her life are a little bit different. Tanden’s commute doesn’t involve trains, buses or highways. Every weekend she flies from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to be with her husband and two young children. Scan the room at a dinner party she’s hosting and you’d probably see Senator Hillary Clinton, for whom Tanden served as policy director during the senator’s 2008 presidential bid and whom Tanden calls one of her closest friends.

And if Election Day goes the way she hopes, Tanden’s boss will be one of the most powerful men in the world.

Neera Tanden

With just one month left to go before the election, we caught up with Senator Barack Obama’s very busy domestic policy director over the phone and later over email to chat about what it’s really like to work at the heart of one of America’s most historic campaigns – and what she looks forward to when it’s all over.

So, how are you doing? Are things totally nuts?
(laughs) I feel pretty good these days!

Tell us about what it’s like to be on the campaign. How do you spend a typical day?
I wake up early and read all my email. I get in by 8:30 a.m. Lots of meetings, lots of calls, lots of writing. We formulate some of … [Obama’s] policies. I meet with groups. I talk to reporters, answer questions, [address] charges from the [Republican candidate John] McCain campaign. At this stage, there is a lot of engagement with the McCain campaign.

When I imagine it, the days seem really crazy – the phones are always ringing and you’re all running around. Is that how it is?
It really depends on the day. If Obama isn’t doing an event then it’s relatively calm—you have time to think things through. In the summer during the primary, when I was with Hillary, it was very intense.

Does it take a special personality to do what you do? Could anyone do it?
You really just need to be able to work quickly and multi-task.

Did you know you wanted to work in politics? How did you fall into it?
I’ve always been interested in politics. My mother instilled in me a deep sense of public service. My mother was always interested in politics. She [told me] that the decisions that people make can really affect people.

Is it unusual that your mom emphasized public service when you were growing up? I guess I don’t hear that a lot.
A little unusual … She also had a unique background. My parents got divorced …. My family was on welfare when I was child. We have sort of an unusual background on many levels.

What’s it like being a mom and working on the campaign?
It’s been tough. This is the longest I’ve been away.

That must be hard.
In the summer, they were here most of the time in Chicago. [Now] I see my kids anywhere between two and three days a week. The last few weeks have been hectic, but I’m looking forward to seeing them every day again soon.

Do your kids know what you do?
They’ve lived with political campaigns for a long time. When I worked for Hillary, my daughter would go down the library line and ask everyone how they’re voting. She came home and told me not everyone was voting for Hillary. I told her that’s happening a lot. [Later] I told her Hillary lost and now we’re going to try and help Barack Obama.

What was it like to work so closely with Senator Clinton? Do you miss working with her?
Hillary has been a great friend of mine and someone I hugely admire. I worked for her on and off for ten years. This job [on the Obama campaign] … I talked to Hillary about taking it, and she was very supportive of taking it. I was with her at the convention. She gave me a big bear hug. They really are an amazing family. Chelsea was a great advocate for Hillary and really campaigned her heart out for her. I consider her, and my family considers her, a great friend.

How is it different being on Senator Obama’s campaign?
It’s very different. There’s much more structure. He’s really involved and interested in issues I work on—really committed to them. It really matters to him how these things work. It’s been an honor to be here, and the campaign has been great.

Have you met Michelle Obama?
I’ve only met her briefly a few times. She’s been very welcoming.

How will the country change if Senator Obama wins?
This is a very critical time. We are at a crossroads in the country. There are major challenges. We’re dealing with an economic crisis, lack of leadership, ideological opposition to solving problems at a federal level. [We have a] healthcare crisis, global climate change. Sen. Obama believes strongly that we can put forward ideas to tackle these problems. It will take a tremendous amount of work across the aisle bringing Republicans and Democrats together. He has a vision of how we can work together and actually make real progress. [We can have a president] actually committed to solving problems rather than ignoring them.

If Senator Obama wins, do you see yourself working in the White House?
I'm very superstitious and don't think of anything past November 4th.

Do you think you lead a particularly charmed life? Or is it perfectly natural to be where you are now given your long stretch in politics?
I feel honored to be where I am. It's a great privilege to work for Senator Obama and to have worked for so long for Senator Clinton. I count my blessings everyday.

What are you looking forward to the most after the election? Do you have a big vacation planned?
I look forward to hanging out with my children and husband. Days of relaxing and picking my kids up from school. Doing laundry. Being a normal parent and wife.

Shweta Jha is a writer in D.C.

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