Thursday, June 30, 2022

How Biden's deputy press secretary went from green-and-white to White House

March 2, 2022
<p>Photo illustration by Daena Faustino. </p>

Photo illustration by Daena Faustino.

Once, Chris Meagher worked for the State News at Michigan State University. Now, he’s the Deputy Press Secretary at the White House, working daily with Press Secretary Jen Psaki and President Joe Biden to keep the public informed about what’s happening in America. 

Life starts early for those who work at the White House, and Meagher typically starts his day around 5:15 a.m. Every day looks different depending on Biden’s schedule, and other factors, as well.

 “There’s really no such thing as a ‘normal’ day here, which is part of what makes it fun and interesting,” Meagher said. 

The press team holds a daily meeting around 7:30 a.m., and by then, Meagher has scanned the morning’s news, identified what reporters might be interested in hearing about and commuted the 20-minute journey into the White House. 

Then, the team prepares for the early afternoon press briefing, which is typically held in a room connected to Meagher’s office. Occasionally, if Biden is traveling, the briefing can even take place on Air Force One. 

Meagher said his door is open to reporters throughout the day. 

“It’s kind of unique … that reporters just have access and can swing through anytime they want to ask questions,” Meagher said.

Meagher fields questions about scheduling, breaking news and the White House’s reaction to it. Though it can delay some of his daily tasks, he said it is “nice to have that personal, one-on-one interaction.”

Meagher started out reporting after graduating from MSU with a degree in journalism. After spending several years in Santa Barbara reporting and earning a law degree, Meagher made the switch from reporting to political communications, working with Congresswoman Lois Capps, who was a federal representative from California from 1998-2017.

From there, Meagher worked for the Colorado and Montana Democratic Parties, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before finally being appointed to the White House in March 2021. 

The transition from reporting to political communications was a natural evolution of Meagher’s interests, he said.

“I was always interested in politics, and I had some family who worked here in D.C. ... It was always in the back of my mind,” Meagher said.

Meagher’s past as a reporter gives him an inside perspective now that he works with them on a daily basis. Meagher can anticipate what reporters are looking for, and how they’ll package the information they learn.

“It’s definitely been helpful. … You’re on the other side of the phone,” Meagher said, noting that he always tries to place himself in the shoes of those he’s working with. 

In a world where breaking news is often reported as it’s happening on Twitter, television and digital news, one of the biggest challenges of Meagher’s job is dealing with all the noise – not that noise is a bad thing.

“There’s just so much information out there these days that it’s really a 24/7 job – it never stops,” Meagher said. “I think just the sheer speed and volume keeps you on your toes.”

COVID-19 has also proved to be a communications challenge. Events have to be meticulously planned out, and there can’t be large numbers of visitors. The pandemic has made President Joe Biden’s personal communications much more difficult. 

“He’s a very hands-on president. He connects with people very well,” Meagher explained. “That’s always been a part of him and how he’s been so good at the job over the years, his empathy and his connection to people. So, we’re just thinking about how he can still do that … in the age of COVID.”

Meagher likened working in the executive branch to certain plots from presidential TV shows.

“There’s definitely some ‘Veep’ moments from time to time,” Meagher said. “There’s a lot of moments in ‘The West Wing’ where you sit there and think, ‘I think there was a ‘West Wing’ episode about this exact same thing,’ and it’s funny to kind of be triggered by that.”

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Clearly, working at the White House is a lot of pressure. “I sleep pretty well at night,” Meagher said with a laugh. “Even if I don’t sleep for very long, I sleep hard.” 

Meagher said going on runs, calling up friends and catching some MSU basketball are ways that he carves out time for himself. 

“It’s definitely hard to keep a work-life balance in this job, but you also just understand the importance of the work and what you’re here to do, and you dedicate yourself to that,” Meagher said.

And that work is that important. Biden has made a commitment to making intentional choices in terms of diversity, and because of that, America has its most diverse cabinet yet. Putting people from marginalized communities into places of power gives them a voice, and that’s been vital to Biden’s communication strategy, as well.

“We actually have a team that works with constituency media,” Meagher said. “So, whether it's African American press, or Latino press, or, you know, outlets focused on women or AAPI, we have people who are dedicated to making sure that we're reaching out to those constituencies … we also make sure that they have subject matter experts on whatever issue we're trying to talk about.”

Hearing from all the diverse populations within the United States about what is important to them is a priority of Meagher and his team. 

Diversity is one of many values that Meagher shares with Biden, and though the two mostly align in their views, no two people will ever agree on everything. 

Navigating these different views while remaining a spokesperson to the president is part of Meagher’s job. 

“There’s obviously room for disagreement, and that happens from time to time … but it’s not about you at the end of the day, it’s about the person you work for and the people you serve,” Meagher said.

As someone who has worked both as a reporter and in political communications, Meagher’s No. 1 piece of advice is to be curious and pick up the phone. 

“That’s when you really get to dig into how a person thinks, and what they’re feeling. … Nine times out of 10, it’s going to be fruitful and produce more than you probably ever imagined,” Meagher said. 

Though Meagher’s job can be remarkably stressful, there are moments that make it all worth it for him. 

Meagher remembers the signing of the Infrastructure Bill as one of the most meaningful moments of his career. Though he was extremely busy, he took a moment to go outside and watch the signing. 

“It was like a moment where you just kind of take a second to reflect on what that work has led to, you know, in the positive moments and just moments of history that you're able to be a part of and able to witness,” Meagher said. “It felt like a culmination of a lot of hard work.”

Sometimes, the experience itself of working at the White House is enough in itself. 

“It's funny, because you sit here and you work so hard every day, and sometimes you are so wrapped up in your job and returning phone calls or emails or getting a story out the door or whatever, and then you sit back and take a breath and look out the window or take a walk down the hall, and it just catches you,” Meagher said. “You're like, ‘I work in the West Wing, at the White House,’ you know, and it's pretty cool."

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