In ELLE.com‘s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between.
When White House press secretary Jen Psaki first addressed reporters last Wednesday, she made them a promise—to bring “truth and transparency back to the briefing room.”
In many ways, Psaki’s presence is already a return to normalcy. She’s worked in politics for two decades and held several roles during the Obama administration, including communications director and spokesperson for the State Department. Now, under President Biden, she’ll be helping lead the nation’s first all-female senior communications team.
When I spoke to Psaki via phone on Jan. 6, she was weeks away from taking on her new role, and a pro-Trump mob had just violently stormed the U.S. Capitol. “It’s crazy for America,” she said. “It’s no less crazy, in some ways, for me than any other given day.” Below, Psaki looks back on the career that brought her here—and why she won’t necessarily be staying for long.
My first job
I was a lifeguard and taught swimming lessons when I was in high school. There’s something about teaching four-year-olds how to swim—convincing them they can trust you and, yes, they should put their head under water and, yes, you’re going to catch them—that’s been applicable to all sorts of things in life. It taught me the power of communication and making sure people understand you’re a trusted voice.3
What I wanted to be when I grew up
When I about six years old, I loved watching 20/20. I didn’t really know what news was at that age, but I liked the storytelling of it. I would tell my family that when Barbara Walters retired, I was going to take her job.
How I approach work-life balance
When I went back to the White House to be the communication director under Obama, I was six-months pregnant. I now have two preschool-aged children and it’s a lot to juggle, but it also offers a great deal of perspective. You have these little people who are going to be more important than anything you’re doing professionally. Also, there are few people as efficient as working mothers. I try to preserve the time before my first call in the morning to exercise, and if my kids are up early, I spend time with them. It may be 15 minutes of playing cards or having a dance party. But balance is not even the right word. It’s madness at most times; two months ago, I was finishing up a press release about some White House senior staff while my children were naked and getting out of the bath. You have to super-focus in the moment because there’s no other choice.
How my children changed my perspective
When I had my daughter, I’d been chugging along in my career and had great mentors and success, but it was the first time it hit me that I really loved working and having that professional outlet. It’s a choice I’m making. That’s something I’m mindful of too.
My interview with President Biden
When we spoke about the press secretary job, we had a conversation about a range of issues—foreign policy, politics in our country. But at the end, he said, “Tell me about your kids.” I said, “Oh, they’re five and two.” He said, “Listen, I tell this to everybody who works for me. Anytime you have something that relates to your family, if you need to be there, you don’t need to ever explain that. Just tell us, and we’re good.” It’s hard because you still want to deliver for your job, and there are things that come up for working moms every day. But at the same time, that sentiment is incredibly powerful.
Why I might not always be press secretary
This is a job of a lifetime, and it’s an honor to be serving in it. But I think part of my responsibility is to help prepare people on the team to play bigger roles in a year or so. That was appealing to me and important, in part, because I have little kids. I’ve served for many years in government, so I’m mindful of the impact this has on my family. I’m only the second Democratic woman to be White House press secretary. I’m the only Democratic mom to be White House press secretary. But beyond that, there’s never been a woman of color in this job—or a man of color, for that matter. If I can play a role in helping support and train the next group of leaders, that’s an incredible opportunity. My goal is to lift up the team around me.
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Best career advice I’ve received
When I became the traveling press secretary for then-President Obama in the 2012 campaign, I was going to be one of the primary advisors to him on the campaign trail. I was used to having someone above me prep him for interviews or tell him what was in the news. My old boss, Robert Gibbs, who was the first press secretary under then-President Obama, told me, “Just act like you belong there, and at some point, people will believe you.” I’ve carried that forth. My mother also always tells me, “Just be who you are.” I keep that on my shoulder. What would my mother think about what I’m about to say or how I’m handling myself in this meeting? It’s re-centering.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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