The Daily Princetonian sat down with Chris Lu ’88, former Assistant to the President and White House Cabinet Secretary for President Barack Obama. Lu discussed his time at Princeton, his days with Obama at Harvard Law School, and 2020 Democratic Candidates.
The Daily Princetonian: What’s it like to come back to Princeton and what does that mean to you in the context of your new stature?
Chris Lu: I have the greatest memories of Princeton, but I’m here all the time. I’m probably on campus every year or two doing something. My wife and I are actually huge Princeton basketball fans, so we show up once a year to see games. I was a Wilson School major so the chance to come back and talk to students is great.
DP: What would you say is your favorite Princeton memory?
CL: The Daily Princetonian. I was a Wilson School major, but to the extent that I had a minor it was in The Daily Princetonian, and there were many days that I spent far more time in the newsroom than I did on my studies.
DP: Shifting more towards your job, you joined Obama World really early. You went to law school with him?
CL: I’ve known Barack Obama since the late 1980s. When he became a U.S. senator, I joined his Senate staff, and then he basically kept me gainfully employed for 12 years. It’s good to have a boss that keeps hiring you for jobs.
DP: You were tapped to begin planning a potential presidential transition about six months before the election happened? What was that like?
CL: Well, it’s hard. The presidential transition is one of the more unique things we have in the United States. Imagine a federal government of about two million employees that on one day at noon, on inauguration day, the top 4,000 people leave the government. You wouldn’t run Princeton that way, you wouldn’t run any company that way. And so the amount of time you have formally to plan a transition goes from election to inauguration day. Back in 2008 that was 77 days, and that’s not enough time to both come up with a new slate of personnel who’s going to run these agencies [and] what the policies you’re going to implement are, so we really started this well in advance of election day, not even knowing that he would be the nominee.
DP: Is that standard practice?
CL: It has now become the standard practice, but it wasn’t necessarily back in the day.
DP: Is there any reason that you were the man in charge?
CL: I had been with Obama since law school; I think he trusted me. He knew that I knew his policy agenda, and I was seen as an honest broker because when you’re in the presidential transition, you are removed from the day-to-day campaign functions, but you have to understand what is happening in the campaign. You have to understand the connections of the campaign and being on the Senate staff, and knowing the people on the Senate staff, knowing people on the campaign, I could be an effective bridge, and I was seen as an honest broker. Plus, I’d been in D.C. a long time so I knew a lot of the people who would be helpful to us.
DP: You were also the co-chair of the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. What would you say are some of the opportunities and the challenges that are facing Asian-Americans today?
CL: On balance, Asian-Americans are healthier, wealthier, and more established than other racial groups, but there’s big disparities within the Asian-American community, and so one of the things that we tried to do was ensure that federal government data reflected some of those disparities. And so we understand what the pockets were within the Asian-American community that were doing well and didn’t need federal services and those that were not doing well, that could take advantage of those services. We also make sure the services in general are more accessible, that websites are translated into different languages, that when you reach out to people in the community you have people that understand not only the language, but the cultural norms of that community. I’m proud of the work that we did and it dovetailed with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, so a lot of it was ensuring that people of Asian-American communities were signing up for the Affordable Care Act.
DP: You were also one of the highest ranking Asian-Americans of the Obama Administration at a time when the United States had just elected its first black president. What was it like being such a high-profile leader of color in a time when that was such a central part of American political discourse?
CL: I was fortunate to work for a president who understood the value of diversity, and he wanted diversity among not only his cabinet but his White House staff. And he didn’t mean just gender diversity, racial diversity, or sexual orientation diversity — he wanted people who had a variety of experiences, people who came from the private sector, and state and local government, foundations, and so I understand that I had an interesting place in history, but it wasn’t something that I thought about on a day-to-day basis because there was so much diversity elsewhere in the administration as well.
DP: You were there when Obamacare was passed. What do you see as the next step for healthcare in America, and do you believe that the current Democratic Party is on the right track in that regard?
CL: I do. I mean, every single candidate running on the Democratic side believes in expanding healthcare and making it more affordable and providing more protections. Where they disagree is on the spectrum, how far we have to go, but, fundamentally, people understand the system is working better than it has, but there are far too many people left behind and there’s more that we can do.
DP: Where do you fall on that spectrum?
CL: Whether you agree with “Medicare for All” or not, there probably needs to be some kind of public option in the system. That’s something that we tried to do in 2010, but we didn’t have the votes to do it. So, I think that’s the next step that needs to happen in the process. Obviously, not every state has expanded Medicaid and that would be another important step, and it’s happening right now as well.
DP: In that spirit, is there any individual pursuing a 2020 nomination whom you support, especially as you are a superdelegate for the DNC?
CL: I will support whoever the nominee is. I think they’re all fantastic.
DP: What do you think the average college student can do to push in favor of the Democrat of their choosing?
CL: Our country is at a pretty important inflection point. I’ve watched as established norms that should never be violated are violated every single day. There’s a divisiveness in this country, there’s a negativity, and something is really wrong in this country. A lot of what’s wrong in this country goes beyond this current president, but this current president contributes to it every day. He works not to unify the country, not to represent all Americans, but is about dividing, and we need to get away from that. Again, it doesn’t matter what party you’re in, I want people to stay engaged and at the very least vote. The media is a central hallmark of our democracy. Subscribe to a newspaper somewhere and support the media, and help support the institutions that are helping to protect our democracy.