Working for the White House: Duncan Wolfe and President Obama

Originally published on PassionPassport.com

Lincoln Motor Company. Collective Quarterly. McDonalds. Amazon. The White House.

These are just some of the clients 28-year-old Duncan Wolfe has worked with. Yes, the White House.

“When I was at the White House, I was just a part of this functioning machine whose goal was to help connect the world to the President and his message through the Internet,” Duncan said.

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan)

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan)

Duncan worked in the Office of Digital Strategy for the last 15 months of the Obama administration. It was a job that, as he put it, was a way for him to close out a huge part of his life — the part that included President Obama.

Before the White House, before he was even legally allowed to drink, Duncan’s life started to crisscross with then-Senator Barack Obama’s. In the winter of 2007, Duncan worked at the Iowa caucuses and witnessed the empowering moment when Obama, the underdog, won the Iowa primary.

That led to an internship at the Obama headquarters in the summer of 2008, which led to Duncan taking a semester off from college to work for a Senate campaign in Missouri in 2010. It was then that he realized the person with the camera always gets to be present for the most interesting moments.

Two important things were happening simultaneously. Duncan was getting experience in politics, and he began taking an interest in art (he even went so far as to change his major frompolitical science to art history).

“I absolutely fell in love with the idea that I could think and read and analyze and break down a visual culture,” Duncan said.

In his art history classes, he learned about the people in power and the art they commissioned to communicate some kind of message to the general population. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was exactly what he’d be doing at the White House nine years later.

After graduation, Duncan moved to Washington DC to intern for Pete Souza, the Chief White House Photographer. After those three months were up, he moved home to St. Louis, then to North Carolina to work on the 2008 Obama campaign, then to Chicago to do freelance work as a commercial director.

“I always felt like an imposter,” he said. “All the sudden people were calling me a director. I’d be on film sets and there would be a hundred people around and I was the youngest, but they’d be like, ‘what do you want?’”

Through trial and error, Duncan evolved into a creative director. He found representation, which led to work for Lincoln and Collective Quarterly, among others.

“You don’t need technical knowledge,” said Duncan. “You just need the will to fuck up. And you also need taste; you have to know what you like … When you’re starting out, you’re just trying to copy things you like and, in the process of doing that, in that mimicry, your own voice is slowly revealed.”

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan) 

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan) 

Then, when he was comfortable with his work in Chicago, the White House called.

Well, sort of. Technically it was a Facebook message (fitting, considering the job Duncan would eventually have) from someone he’d known as an intern five years earlier offering a position in the Office of Digital Strategy, an office created under President Obama.

His first instinct was to turn it down. But the more he thought about it, the more it started to make sense — a job at the White House, during the end of Obama’s second and final term, would be a fitting way to close the loop on the Obama era of his life.

So he moved to Washington D.C. and traded jeans and T-shirts for suits and ties, film sets for a desk in an office.

There were about 20 people in the Office of Digital Strategy, and they were responsible for everything from managing the White House’s website to sending snaps from the White House’s official Snapchat to setting up a Twitter account for President Obama. Their job was to see where people where, what platforms they were tuning in to, and figure out how to tailor the President’s message accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan) 

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan) 

“We knew that we had a really good character — the President — and we had these amazing locations — the White House, Air Force One,” said Duncan.

Each week, the video team, including Duncan, would divvy up who was going to cover which events and spent the rest of the time editing or strategizing how to present that week’s material.

But even an office in the White House isn’t immune to typical office politics. As a relatively new branch of the White House tree, those in the Office of Digital Strategy were constantly looked at as the “crazy Internet kids,” even though they were more directly in touch with the American public than almost any other office in the White House.

Right after starting, Duncan came face to face with a lesson he’d learned years before, as a college student working on a Senate campaign — the people with the cameras get to be present for the coolest moments.

The small video team Duncan was part of were required to send members with the President, Vice President, and First Lady when they traveled. In his 15 months at the White House, Duncan went to 19 countries on five different continents.

He visited a refugee camp on the Syrian/Jordanian border with Mrs. Biden and was part of a secure convoy that took Vice President Biden to meet with the Palestinian Prime Minister. He accompanied Biden on his final trip to Iraq and Michelle Obama on her trips to Liberia, Morocco, and Spain for her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. And Duncan was also in Midway Island with the President when he announced the creation of the largest marine preserve in the world.

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan) 

Photo courtesy of Duncan Wolfe (@duncan) 

“It was an office job, mixed in with some of the most surreal moments of my life,” said Duncan.

The day-to-day reality of his job was punctuated with moments of pure awe Duncan had to learn how to ignore. At the end of the day, he had a job to do. Still, not everyone gets to fly on Air Force One when they go on business trips.

“There were some situations where it would have been nice to pause and look around and soak in the moment,” said Duncan. “But you can’t because you’re there to work.”

Though he was there to work, Duncan did get to witness the world from Obama’s perspective. As he traveled with the Obamas and the Bidens, he noticed the real-world effects of foreign policy.

“I feel like all problems in politics come down to when people put up walls between themselves and they don’t actually expose themselves to people in different circumstances,” Duncan said.“When you can have actual connection is when you can forge empathy with a person and see where they’re coming from.”

Time and time again, Duncan watched the President of the United States have real conversations with other people — whether that be a world leader in Southeast Asia or an average Joe in Indiana.

“There’s no substitute for going somewhere,” Duncan said. “You can read an interview or a magazine, or you can watch a show or a movie … but there’s no substitute for going to a place, meeting with people, and having a physical, face-to-face interaction.”

Now, a few months after he left the White House, Duncan is still decompressing.

“I see a lot of people just out of college struggling to figure out how to do this thing, and they look at [me] as if there’s some secret to how to make it work,” he said. “And honestly, you just have to grind and you just have to work.”

Since his move from D.C., he re-signed with his former production company, moved to Los Angeles, and found an apartment with lemon trees nearby and a place to work outside in the sunshine. He’s directing commercials and branded content, but slowly wading into narrative shorts and music videos.