Today is Inauguration Day, and as two-term President Barack Obama and his administration exit the White House, several Yale alumni who played key roles on the Obama team are leaving with him.
Nate Loewentheil ’07 LAW ’13, R. David Edelman ’07 and Yohannes Abraham ’07 all graduated from Yale College together and went on to serve in the White House in various capacities. As President-elect Donald Trump assumes office, and government leadership changes hands in Washington, these three Yalies now have the opportunity to both look forward to the next step in their professional careers and reflect on their time in the White House. All three told the News that their time at Yale shaped their interest in public service as they launched their careers in an era defined by a political ethos of hope and change.
“The three of us all had dramatically different experiences, and I think every one of us has found it tremendously satisfying,” Edelman said. “I could think of no better way I could have spent the last near-decade of my life than working in this government. … I hope Yalies will continue to be true to that tradition of public engagement and public service that was part of what drew me to [the University] in the first place.”
BRIGHT COLLEGE YEARS
Loewentheil — special assistant to the president for economic policy at the National Economic Council and director of the White House Task Force for Baltimore City — majored in Ethics, Politics and Economics with a focus on urban policy. He said public service opportunities at Yale refined his interests. As an undergraduate, Loewentheil founded and later ran the Roosevelt Institution, a student-run think tank at Yale and other universities across the country.
After graduating from Yale Law, Loewentheil began working at the White House through a public service fellowship, and has remained there for the past three-and-a-half years. In his current role, Loewentheil said he oversees transportation and infrastructure and is also in charge of the White House task force for his native Baltimore City, which was created following unrest there in 2015. Loewentheil added that he and his fellow Yale alumni have maintained a strong bond throughout their careers in Washington.
“There’s a special sense of camaraderie, as we’ve navigated this complicated institution together and tried to make a dent on some big problems,” Loewentheil said. “We each had a set of issues we really cared about and ways to work on them, with a slightly different skill set. It’s been a real pleasure to go through that together and watch each other thrive, and occasionally have setbacks.”
Abraham — special assistant to the president and chief of staff for the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs — echoed many of Loewentheil’s sentiments, adding that Loewentheil was an incredible advocate for his hometown of Baltimore and praising the breadth of his contributions to the Economic Council.
Abraham himself is widely recognized as a rising young star in his field. Named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for the “Law and Policy” category in 2012, Abraham is one among a small group of Obama “lifers” — Abraham began working with Obama within weeks of his graduation from Yale, beginning as the Virginia field director for Obama’s 2008 presidential run.
While Abraham said many of his classmates were skeptical about his decision to work for the then-Sen. Obama, who they saw as a long-shot candidate, he never looked back. In many ways his risk paid off: Not only was the 2008 campaign successful, but Abraham then went on to work in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs during the passage of Obamacare, then serving as the national political director at Organizing for America, before acting as the deputy national political director of the Obama-Biden 2012 presidential run and joining the White House in his current capacity.
Abraham now oversees the White House’s engagement with governors, mayors and city council members across the country to help implement the president’s policy platforms. Combating such issues as veteran homelessness, responding to natural disasters and other emergencies and lobbying legislators to implement progressive policies like raising the minimum wage, Abraham and his team look for opportunities to get the ball rolling on domestic policy goals. On the public engagement side of his job, Abraham leads a team responsible for directly communicating to the American public and collecting information to understand policy priorities.
Abraham, a political science major at Yale, said he remembered his undergraduate years as a time of growth. For him, Yale was place where his classmates’ curiosity and his professors, who were not afraid to challenge their students, created a vibrant intellectual environment. Abraham said he had vivid memories of classes he took with professor John Gaddis and another with Sean Smith, who ended up later being a colleague of Abraham’s in the White House.
SERVING THE PUBLIC FROM WASHINGTON
Edelman serves as special assistant to the president for economic and technology policy, leading the National Economic Council team responsible for issues at the intersection of technology and the economy, including net neutrality and cybersecurity. He previously served on the National Security Council as director for international cyber policy.
Edelman said that while he was always interested in public service and technology, he never could have expected to end up in his current job. He added that at Yale he majored in history and EP&E, and originally planned on being a restaurant critic upon graduation. Edelman said he spent three of his four summers in college doing internships in Washington, and noticed that his friends from other Ivy League schools all had programs in Washington that allowed them to hear speakers and attend dinners over the summer. After conversations with then-Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, Edelman founded and served as the first director of the still-running Yale in Washington alumni and student network.
Edelman also said he gained valuable skills from his time on the Yale College Council — he said he only knew exactly what a United Nations resolution looked like because it was identical to a YCC resolution — and as co-director of the Yale Ex!t Players. Edelman said after “nerve-wracking” improv shows, even briefing the president was easy by comparison.
“Government is not without idiosyncrasies and frustrations, and the ability to bring humor to a room and to not take yourself too seriously is an absolutely essential mental quality that I think is one of the only reasons I’ve been able to be in this place for six years,” Edelman said. “That quality of keeping some levity to it and keeping it human is really important to staying sane.”
For these three Yale alumni, a steadfast commitment to public service led them to their White House jobs. Abraham emphasized this, calling the mission of public service his “North Star” — something that will guide him in his career going forward.
As Abraham explained, many of the Obama staffers worked under an ethos of unification, one of balanced optimism towards the possibility of creating real change.
“What we have taken with us moving forward is not a naive sense of what is possible and what is not, but an optimistic and hopeful understanding that our current conception of the possible is in many ways flawed, and the boundaries of the possible can be changed through a lot of hard work and collective action,” Abraham said.
Loewentheil spoke of the historic significance of the opportunity to work for a president with such a “powerful vision for America,” praising not only Obama’s administration but the entire movement he created. He added that his experience in the administration helped shape his approach to politics as he learned from Obama how to combine a “deep idealism about the potential for change with a very practical realization that change is slow and requires hard work.”
BEYOND THE WHITE HOUSE
All three will be changing jobs at the start of the Trump administration, with Loewentheil moving to Baltimore to continue the work he began with the task force and Abraham hoping to keep service at the center of his career moving forward. Edelman said that his White House role did not allow much time for job seeking, but he is confident that both the Yale and White House support networks will be helpful.
“My focus right now, and I think everyone’s focus right now is … making sure we have a world-class transition,” Edelman said. “For all of the partisan rancor that is out there, myself, my team and the Economic Council have a laserlike focus on making sure the incoming team, whoever they are, have all the information they need to hit the ground running and take on this immense challenge on day one.”
Abraham added that despite the outcome of the presidential election, it has been “encouraging” to see his colleagues reaffirming their commitment to effecting change and to making progress on the issues they care about.
Edelman added that he hopes current Yalies continue to pursue public service, which he said is ingrained in the culture of the University, citing the pride students take in “making a contribution” in various ways on campus and in New Haven. Abraham encouraged students to find a job that does not feel like work, so that they will feel passionate about what they are doing.
“Figure out the things that you really care about, and find ways to work on them,” Loewentheil said. “Be less concerned about the specific job and more concerned about the opportunity to do something.”
Correction, Jan. 20: A former version of this article states that Abraham simultaneously worked in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs and served as national political director at Organizing for America. This is false: the two positions were consecutively, not simultaneously, held.