At 24, David Litt found himself serving under a incredible boss: none other than former President Barack Obama. After writing for Valerie Jarrett, the President’s Senior Advisor at the time, Litt worked his way up to writing for Obama himself — both embarrassing and distinguishing himself on the climb.
In September, Litt published a memoir about this experience: Thanks Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years. Litt recently spoke to MTV News about having the leader of the free world as your boss, and why now more than ever is the time for young people to get involved with politics.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
MTV News: Why did you write this book?
David Litt: I originally wrote this book because I had all these funny stories about times that I embarrassed myself in front of the President. Lots of White House books, including some really great ones, are about what it’s like to be in the President’s inner circle. But to my knowledge, nobody had written a White House book about what it’s like to be the rest of us -- someone young and starting out who believes in public service but isn’t sure what that really means yet and is learning on the job.
I [also] wrote this book for everybody who has been 24 and terrified of their boss’s boss. That happened to me, except my boss’s boss was the President. I happened to be in the White House during the time, but I think I went through what everyone goes through as they leave college and try to figure out their place in the world. What matters to me? What am I good at? How can I both contribute and be happy? Also how do I navigate the world of online dating -- there’s some of that.
Can you describe what your job was like?
The day-to-day of working on a campaign was very different than working for the White House. [During the campaign I was] out in the field, talking to voters or talking to volunteers who were going to go out and talk to voters, and slowly but surely persuading people to support Barack Obama and also convincing people who might be on the fence about voting that it was worth their time.
In the White House, the day-to-day depended on your job. For me as a speechwriter, it was to go into the office and usually I’d be working on one speech at a time. It could be any point in that process -- drafting, editing, talking to policy people -- but we were always thinking about how to tie whatever small issue we were working on back to the broader themes that "we’re all in it together" and "we can solve our problems together" — [themes] that President Obama talked about not just on the 2008 campaign but from the moment he entered public life.
How did your experience campaigning and working for the Obama administration shape how you viewed the 2016 campaign?
2008 was this moment when we believed that politics could change America. I was inspired by a specific thing President Obama said: People who love this country can change it. And looking back on it, I absolutely think he was right. I worked with people who loved their country deeply and together we did change it -- not always as fast as we would have liked or in every way we would have liked, but America is a better place because all of my colleagues made the decision to go into politics.
One of the things that made me really sad in 2016 was a sense of cynicism about politics in general. It did not surprise me that Trump was cynical about politics because cynicism and "American carnage" is his brand, but it made me sad to see so many people who really believed in justice and believed in making more progress for America lose heart that politics could accomplish that. I think one of the challenges for all of us who want to make America better is to figure out how to rekindle not a faith that politics can solve anything, but that politics has to be part of the solution.
When Trump won, I did do a fair amount of re-writing [for my book]. It seemed urgent in a way to record what it was like to have a President and a White House who weren’t always perfect, but were animated by this sense of wanting to do good, of wanting to make America a more perfect union, and wanting to live up to the incredibly demanding responsibility that comes from having your office be in the most famous office building on Earth. I wanted to capture that both to remind people of how recently we had that kind of White House and hopefully to give people some hope that we’re going to have that kind of White House again.
What advice would you give young people interested in going into politics?
For young people looking to shape and change the country and get us out of the mess that we’re in, I do think there’s nothing more effective than politics.
It’s not just about all the good you can do — it’s about all the bad you can prevent. That’s less inspiring, but it’s true. Look at what’s happening in Puerto Rico right now. Look at our complete lack of leadership when it comes to reducing gun violence. Democrats had a really contentious primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but I think we can agree that if either of them was in the Oval Office today, 3.4 million Puerto Ricans would not feel abandoned by their government. And we would be talking about preventing the next mass shooting, not just offering thoughts and prayers to the victims of this one.
“For young people looking to shape and change the country and get us out of the mess that we’re in, I do think there’s nothing more effective than politics. It’s not just about all the good you can do — it’s about all the bad you can prevent.”
As a speechwriter, you got to speak to a lot of Americans. What did you learn about them and what do you think about the idea that there is a major division among them?
One of my favorite parts of my job was to talk to people who were affected in some way by President Obama’s policies or who just stood for the best of America. President Obama loved to tell stories of Americans who otherwise might be overlooked.
In my book, I write about Stacey Lihn, a woman in Arizona whose daughter was born with a heart condition that is fairly similar to the one that Jimmy Kimmel’s son has. When I met her, [Lihn’s daughter] Zoe was two years old, had already had two open heart surgeries, and whether or not her parents could afford the third one was going to be dependent on whether or not the Affordable Care Act survived or was repealed. In the epilogue of the book, I got to go visit Zoe who is doing amazingly well — I think she’s now a yellow belt in karate — and I still keep in touch with the Lihns and get Facebook updates. [Zoe is] a normal, bouncy, hyperactive kid and she wouldn’t have been if there had been someone else in the Oval Office. And she wouldn’t have been if there hadn’t been a team of people thinking about her in some small way every day.
I don’t think Americans are as divided as you would think watching the news. Eighty-six percent of Americans believe that DREAMers who were brought to this country as children should be able to stay here. A majority of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. A big majority of Americans support tougher laws for background checks on guns.
What gives me hope is that when you look at the American people, it’s not that we agree on everything but we still share the same basic set of values. So far having a president who doesn’t share those values has only strengthened our commitment to them. It hasn’t changed that sort of sense of common, core beliefs.
Do you have any advice for young people who feel disheartened by our current political climate?
Most people will tell you that when you’re young what you should be doing is following your heart. Especially in these times, I would encourage you to join a campaign. And not necessarily a political campaign, although I think that’s often the way to go but just figure out what you care about that is bigger than yourself, and figure out a way to become part of that and the rest of it will fall into place. More importantly you’ll do something that really matters.