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Q&A: Alum Macon Phillips discusses role in Obama ‘08 campaign

<p>Duke graduate Macon Phillips postponed his wedding to work on the 2008 Obama campaign—which he called a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”</p>

Duke graduate Macon Phillips postponed his wedding to work on the 2008 Obama campaign—which he called a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Macon Phillips, Trinity ‘00, is the coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs in the U.S. State Department. He became involved in President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as the deputy director of the campaign’s new media department. He later worked as the new media director for the presidential transition team and later as the special assistant to the president and director of digital strategy. Phillips spoke with The Chronicle’s David Wohlever about his role in the State Department, his work during the campaign, his time at Duke and how college students can get involved in politics.

TC: Could you talk about your role on President Obama’s 2008 campaign, and maybe share some interesting stories?

MP: Working on the 2008 campaign was a once in a lifetime opportunity. One of the things that made it cool was exactly the thing that made it unsustainable. All of these people coming together for a very intense amount of time, on a very focused outcome, which was winning an election. And in that sense, I’m glad it’s over because I don’t think I could’ve kept it up.

But I’m really glad I did it, and that’s certainly a message that I would love to get across to anyone interested in this kind of work. If you’re in a position to join a presidential campaign—and I had to postpone my wedding to join the Obama campaign—first make sure you care a lot about the person you’re supporting, or the issue that you’re fighting for, not your own career in politics.

I worked on the new media team, and we focused on using technology to communicate, to organize and fundraise. And as a result, we were able to catalyze thousands of supporters across the country to knock on doors and turn out the vote for Barack Obama. So it was a truly remarkable experience. You know, one of the things that I get asked a lot is, “what was the secret to the success of the Obama social media program?” I think what we found with social media really helped the campaign take that to epic scale, and it all came from the fact that Barack Obama, in his core, understood that approach.

One of the things I think the people may get a kick out of is when Barack Obama won the election, he gave a speech in Grant Park, and I went to that, and we went out partying. But I had to show up at the office the next day at 8 a.m. to launch Change.gov. So for me, there was a lot of celebration, but the work continued. And then when he was taking the oath of office on January 20th, I was again in an office building, making sure whitehouse.gov got up and implementing some of the digital platform ideas.

TC: What was your experience like at Duke?

MP: One of the things that I certainly take away from my time at Duke, with the work that I do now, is how much of my time at Duke was a period of transition in terms of how technology was affecting things. When I was in high school, we used card catalogs to find books in the library, and we still had those at Perkins. We just got computers there to look up books.

I remember when they rolled out Wi-Fi to Krzyzewskiville and I thought it was magic. I thought, “This is bananas! Internet over the air? What is that?” By the time I was out of college in 2000, using the internet to communicate was becoming more of a norm, and when I went in, it certainly wasn’t. That truly helped me in my own work to understand the world before the internet and the world after.

In some ways, I wish I had taken a year off before I came into college. I look back on my time at Duke and now appreciate, more than I did at the time, all of the options and the subjects I could’ve really jumped into. But instead, I think I followed the pack a little bit more, and I didn’t quite know what I cared about. And it took me until I was probably 24 to really discover something that really inspired me to the extent that I think it would have really helped me make more out of my time at Duke.

TC: How did Duke help you get on the political track?

MP: I think I developed at Duke a confidence and a set of social skills and emotional intelligence that allowed me to work very effectively in high-intensity organizations. It took me awhile to find my feet coming out of college and again discover what I truly was passionate about, but once I did, I think I was able to use those social and those analytical skills to be successful in group environments. The other thing is I continued to have a network of friends and colleagues from Duke that I still to this day rely on for advice and for support. My Duke experience was really something that only began in those four years on campus but has continued to grow and be valuable in the years since.

TC: Would you ever recommend students to take a gap semester to work on a political campaign? Is the lost time at school worth it?

MP: The short answer is yes. I think that college doesn’t need to be four years of continuous classes. Being able to go out into the real world, to experience organizations as they operate and to understand the world outside of campus makes you a better student when you come back. You know, you don’t have to find someone you’re passionate about to get involved in politics. You can also focus on voter registration, or making sure more people participate in politics, or focus on issues you care about like the environment or social justice issues. Consider taking time off to do it, but only for something that you’re passionate about.

Don’t consider working in politics a career choice. Those typically call on the wrong motivations. I think enter politics, be part of something because you really believe in an idea or a person and then stay in it as long as you think that belief is still there. That’s why I’m still here in the administration after seven years. But I don’t think I’m going to have a career in politics. I think I had an amazing opportunity to work for a significant and inspiring president. That’s why I got involved.

TC: What is your current role like?

MC: I joined the State Department about two and a half years ago, and I manage a bureau here in Washington D.C. that focuses on public diplomacy, which is the State Department’s efforts to engage audiences around the world on issues and policy priorities. Fundamentally, I think about our work as connecting people with policy and really understanding that in the 21st-century influence and expertise and power are increasingly diffused and networked, so we need to adapt how we engage foreign audiences.

TC: Can you give a tangible example of what “connecting people with policy” looks like?

MP: One of the best parts about this job is that every country is its own puzzle and every country has its own relationship with the United States and its own set of issues, opportunities and shared interests. So we kind of have to look at it as different cases around the world.

One of the things that is wonderful about being an American diplomat is that we are able to call on the broad range of expertise and experience that Americans have. If we look at a country that’s committed to improve air quality or committed to promote renewable energy in certain ways, for example, we might bring the resources and the expertise we have to that country and focus on the right audiences in that country to inform them about different issues and strategies and try to influence the implementation of that work. And not just anybody, but people who are in a position to actually influence the outcomes of the issues.

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