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Is Obama Still the ‘First Asian American President’? via Wall Street Journal – MMXLII

Is Obama Still the ‘First Asian American President’? via Wall Street Journal

A very interesting perspective on President Barack Obama that many are probably not used to hearing. We hear of the President is black, but in actuality he is of mixed race and very much represents a growing more progressive demographic. Hit the jump to read this article and see the perspective.Outgoing Cabinet Secretary Christopher P. Lu talks about leaving the Administration — and explains why he thinks Obama is still the “first Asian American President.”

Five years ago, when a one-term Senator from Illinois was in the process of stunning fellow Senator and presumptive nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton by seizing presidential front-runner status away from the former First Lady, I interviewed Christopher P. Lu, Senator Obama’s legislative director and Harvard Law School classmate, on an unusual topic:

In 1988, author Toni Morrison had dubbed Bill Clinton America’s “first black president,” detailing the ways in which his personal narrative dovetailed with that of African Americans. Having read Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” it struck me that his life experiences and worldview bore an uncanny resemblance to my own, and those of many of my friends. So — if Obama were elected — could the first actual black president, born and raised in Honolulu with a long stint in Jakarta, be the first figurative Asian American president?

At the time, Lu was measured in his response, calling the Senator a kind of “human Rorschach test” whose diverse background and personal charisma invited others to project themselves upon him. And yet, he acknowledged that many aspects of Obama’s story would resonate particularly with Asian Americans: “He talks about feeling like somewhat of an outsider; about coming to terms with his self-identity; about figuring out how to reconcile the values from his unique heritage with those of larger U.S. society. These are tensions and conflicts that play out in the lives of all of us children of immigrants.”

With Lu having recently announced that he’s departing the administration after four years as White House Cabinet Secretary, I asked him that question again, and got a more emphatic answer: “You were prescient,” he laughs. “I had no idea when you first coined that phrase how right on it was.”In his role as White House majordomo, tasked with conveying the President’s official positions to the executive branch’s varied departments and building private and public consensus among their sometimes fractious heads, Lu had plenty of firsthand opportunity to see Obama’s comfort with and affinity for Asian Americans: Three of the President’s first-term Cabinet members — Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke — were Asian Americans.

So, too, were other major appointments, such as U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra. Pete Rouse, Lu’s mentor, served as Acting Chief of Staff after Rahm Emmanuel’s departure. As Acting Solicitor General, Neal Katyal argued the government’s early legal defenses of Obamacare, while the Treasury Department’s Neel Kashkari, a Republican, was named the “TARP Czar,” overseeing the government’s massive bailout of the banking system. And the Koh Brothers — Harold, former Dean of Yale Law School and Howard — were named as the senior advisors to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius respectively.

This slew of top Asian American postings, the most ever for a U.S. president, was part of a commitment made by Obama to the community in 2008, when he vowed to reauthorize and empower the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, an interdepartmental body established to find ways to give Asian Americans greater voice in and access to the federal government. Lu has helped to see that promise through personally, when he was named co-chair of the Initiative.

“The original chairs were Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, but when Secretary Locke was named Ambassador to China in 2011, the President asked me to take over his role, and it became one of the most fascinating and fulfilling parts of my time in the White House,” says Lu. “And over the past few years, I think the significance, relevance and power of Asian Americans has really dawned on people.”

This has meant more ability to get the community’s voice heard on issues like immigration — “About 10% of DREAM act kids are of Asian descent, something that not many folks in the Beltway realize,” says Lu — as well as healthcare, small business support, and higher education, “which is of course something Asian Americans always cite as a real priority.” The President’s support of community colleges has been one major win in that regard: Though the Ivy Leagues and other elite universities get most of the headlines, 40% of all Asian American higher-ed enrollment is at junior and technical colleges.

Of course, enacting comprehensive immigration reform and addressing critical education challenges like the massive overhang of student debt are tasks that still lie ahead. And now, the White House will be tackling them without Lu, and without the vast majority of the senior Asian American appointees from the President’s first term, many of whom have already moved on, or are planning to do so once a replacement is confirmed.

With so many key Asian Americans departing, will the community be able to retain its voice in these debates? Lu asserts that it will. “Every operation needs new blood,” he says. “Besides, as one of my colleagues said, for those of us working in the administration, life’s a constant series of sprints — you run as fast as you can for as long as you can, and then at some point, you hand the baton on to the next person. But for the President, it’s a marathon.”

That’s a reminder that the Administration’s most senior Asian American — the one sitting in the Oval Office! — will still be there. And, while Lu has made it clear that he needs a long vacation (“To continue the race analogy, it’s time for my water break,” he laughs. “I’m looking forward to not checking my Blackberry every five minutes. I’m looking forward to having normal conversations with people!”), it’s clear that his time in public service isn’t done. He’s been one of the President’s go-to guys for nearly a decade, running his Senate legislative agenda, managing his 2008 Transition, and juggling the egos of his Cabinet “team of rivals.”

In his formal announcement of Lu’s departure, President Obama praised his “dedication” and “tireless efforts,” and noted that he had “asked Chris to consider other opportunities to serve in my Administration, and after he enjoys some time off, I hope he will consider those opportunities.”

Lu won’t comment on what those opportunities might be.

“This already been the dream of a lifetime,” he says. “It’ll be hard to top what I’ve been lucky enough to do over the past eight years. But I will say this: Whatever my next move is, I’ll talk to the President about it first..”

[Source: Speakeasy/Wall Street Journal]

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