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New Obama social secretary is fun but driven

By all accounts, new Obama social secretary Julianna Smoot is girl-next-door nice, disarming, fun and creative. But she's also hyperorganized, direct, driven, competitive — and has a stellar track record as a fundraiser.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's the grind that every politician dreads: working the phones, hour after hour, asking people for campaign money.

Of all the gushy things that fans of Julianna Smoot have to say about the Obamas' new social secretary, the most telling may be that she could make even "the ask" seem fun.

"She'd place the call, get the person on the phone for you and just make you feel good about it," says former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, whose losing re-election campaign in 2004 pulled in millions with Smoot as fundraiser. "Pretty soon you'd be laughing."

In choosing Smoot to be the new overlord of the White House social scene — her first day is Monday — the Obamas have selected someone with an enviable list of not-on-the-resume qualities that have everything to do with her track record as one of the best fundraisers on the planet.

By all accounts, she's girl-next-door nice, disarming, fun, creative. But also hyperorganized, direct, driven, competitive. And, yes, she can even cuss when necessary, the sting softened by her Southern accent.

It's an apt skill set for social secretary, a job that requires a multitasker who can juggle planning for hundreds of occasions ranging from glitzy state dinners to teas-for-two, mediate all the elbows thrown in pursuit of coveted White House invites, and strike the right notes for events with cultural, political, legislative and international overtones.

Equally important, she has the trust of the first lady and the president, who calls her "Smoot."

Smoot's in-box already is full. Beyond the usual events on the calendar, there's a May 19 state dinner for Mexico, sure to be closely watched after all the theatrics over the gate-crashers who penetrated the Obamas' first state dinner, in November for the Indian prime minister.

Susan Sher, chief of staff to Michelle Obama, says Smoot was selected for her organizational abilities and gracious manner, not her history of pulling in big money for Democrats.

But Meredith McGehee, policy director of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said Smoot's background calls for extra attention to who scores invitations to White House events.

"It does mean she will receive scrutiny, well-deserved scrutiny," said McGehee. "She is at the nexus between donors and access."

Christine Forester, a San Diego businesswoman who got to know Smoot when both were part of Obama's money-raising juggernaut in the 2008 campaign, said Smoot is persuasive.

"Because she is Julianna, there is nothing that people don't want to do for Julianna," Forester says. "She has never sought the limelight. She's really all for getting the work done."

Smoot, 42, spent the past year working as chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. He says that when the presidential transition team learned Smoot was interested in working at the trade office, he was told: "If you don't take her, you're a fool."

Smoot already had an eye-popping achievement by then. As finance director for the Obama campaign — her first presidential race — she brought in nearly $750 million, a record amount that surpassed the combined total for both major party candidates four years earlier. Early on, the impressive cash haul marked Obama, a first-term senator, as a serious contender and in later stages it provided the cash to let him do pretty much whatever he wanted.

Plenty of other Democrats, too, owe their campaign millions to Smoot's abilities. She steered fundraising for Democratic Senate candidates in 2006, raising a record sum.

Smoot is taking over the Social Office from Desiree Rogers, a fashion-forward Chicago confidante of the Obamas who resigned after little more than a year in the job. Rogers' service was marked by a series of successful high-wattage social events and lots of new and creative twists, among them an East Room poetry jam and trick-or-treating by thousands of D.C. kids on the White House lawn.

Her tenure was marred, though, by the big blowup over the party-crashers at the Obamas' first state dinner and a general sense that she acted too much like a celebrity and not enough like a staff member.

Smoot comes across as the anti-diva. Fashion doesn't consume her. No one expects her to turn up in Vogue magazine, as Rogers did early on. Or to pull up a seat at a state dinner, as did Rogers. Or to have a front-row seat during New York fashion week, as did Rogers. Think J. Crew, not Comme des Garcons.

Image: Julianna Smoot
This photo provided by Chris Lake, taken May 16, 2008, in Chicago, shows incoming White House Social Secretary Julianna Smoot. (AP Photo/Chris Lake)Chris Lake

Smoot has declined interview requests since the announcement Feb. 27 that she was moving to the Social Office. But Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who developed a close friendship with Smoot when Pritzker was national finance chief of the Obama campaign, said in an interview that Smoot was "into it, and her competitive juices are flowing to do a good job."

"She told me she was even thinking about different ideas as she was showering in the morning," Pritzker said. This was just days after the change was announced.

White House aides say the transition from fashionista to fundraiser portends no big changes in White House guest lists or the general direction of the social operation. Fourteen months into the Obama presidency, the traditional social events — from Easter Egg Roll to Governor's Ball — have all been road-tested at least once.

"With one of everything under our belt, it's much more a matter of tweaking and expanding and trying to get as many different types of people in here as possible," said Sher. "And no, this has nothing to do with donors."

It was during the campaign that Smoot earned the confidence of the Obamas, to whom Smoot didn't flinch from delivered both good news and bad on the fundraising front.

"She could take a situation where everyone was feeling an enormous amount of stress and anxiety, and with a very gentle touch, make everyone relax," says Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama who got to know Smoot during the campaign.

Next to Smoot's desk throughout the campaign was a money tree — a potted plant with a braided trunk that is associated with financial good fortune.

"There were times when the money tree wasn't the strongest, but it always came back," says Ami Copeland, who worked with Smoot during the campaign and credits her with keeping both the plant and the Obama money operation healthy.

"She's a leader by supporting the people around her," Copeland said. He added: "The one thing she does not tolerate is inaction. You know when you haven't fulfilled a commitment."

Copeland remembers sitting down at a D.C. hotel with Smoot and Pritzker for a kickoff planning meeting early in 2007 that stretched to five or six hours as the trio plotted strategy and sent out for food. They carved up the nation in regions. Identified big donors to court. Keyed in on tapping small supporters. Talked through staff. Roughed out what events should look like.

Over the next two years, says Copeland, "in a lot of ways it really played out that way."

Pritzker, who says she arrived at that first meeting with pages of questions, said the goals were audacious and the results are proof of Smoot's leadership abilities.

Over the nearly two-year presidential campaign, Pritzker says, there was only one fundraiser that didn't meet its goal.

And even when the news was grim, such as Obama's second-place finish in New Hampshire, "Julianna was just all the more determined and all the more committed that we would work harder," Pritzker said.

Smoot grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of a golf pro dad and a school teacher mother, and still keeps a Southern accent in her tool kit.

"She can play that whole Southern belle thing to a 'T'" says Kirk. "But in the jobs that she's had, you have to be able to tell people no and do it in a way that they're not offended."

Raising money came to her naturally.

Lisa Lauterbach Laskin, an associate dean at Harvard, was Smoot's "big sister" at Wilson House when they attended Smith College together in the 1980s, and says Smoot's accent seemed exotic to New Englanders and "always charmed everybody we talked to." She says she dragged Smoot along to a phone-a-thon to raise money from students' parents, and Smoot was hooked.

"It was fun," Lauterbach Laskin recalled. "That was back in the day when people would actually answer their phone because they wouldn't know who was calling."

Smoot considered becoming a lawyer after college but was drawn back to fundraising.

"I thought, I liked fundraising at Smith, and I liked politics," she told Smith Alumnae Quarterly in 2008. "It was as simple as that."