Communication & Public Relations
This story is part of our news archives, prior to July 2010.
By David McKay Wilson, from Macalester Today, our alumni magazine
On President Barack Obama’s 100th day in office, Ben Finkenbinder ’07 took off on Air Force One at 7 a.m. with the nation’s 44th president for a town hall meeting later that morning in Missouri.
Finkenbinder, one of Obama’s assistant traveling press secretaries, returned to Washington that afternoon to get ready for a primetime press conference about Obama’s first months in office. Work wasn’t over until 11 p.m. It was just another day at the office for Finkenbinder, 24, who was called by Vanity Fair (February 2009) one of Obama’s “whiz kids” and featured in a photo by Annie Leibowitz.
“The president is a great boss,” says Finkenbinder. “He has a mentality that is very beneficial—there are things you can control, and there are things you can’t control. So you need to control everything you can, and keep a steady demeanor to solve the things that come up. And things always come up.”
Finkenbinder splits the press pool responsibilities with Katie Hogan, who he has worked with for two years. Their job: to make sure the press pool is where it needs to be, when it needs to be, and to help with the logistical issues that inevitably arise with deadline reporting from the road. “Ben is light-hearted and never takes any problem too seriously,” says Hogan. “And he’s the first one to get to the office and the last one to leave.”
Finkenbinder grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb, and learned about federal issues from his father, who serves as executive vice president of the National Mining Association. But it was at Macalester that Finkenbinder, a political science major, became truly political. He knocked on Minnesota doors for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. And then in his junior year, he landed an internship in Washington at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, working for five months under communications director Bill Burton, who went on to become the Obama campaign’s national press secretary. In his final semester at Macalester, as Obama’s improbable campaign was gaining traction, Finkenbinder contacted Burton.
That call paid off. Right after graduation he had a job in the press shop on the fledgling Obama campaign. “I was motivated by Obama’s ideals and where he wanted to move the country,” recalls Finkenbinder, who now lives on Capitol Hill. “I decided, at whatever level I could, to put my full effort behind the campaign.”
Finkenbinder quickly learned what “full effort” means on a presidential campaign. Assigned to Obama’s Chicago headquarters as a media monitor, he kept track of stories produced by newspapers, television, and bloggers. He arrived for work at 3 a.m. to check online websites to see what the media were saying about the campaign. He’d send each story to his superior, then create a more comprehensive document for the rest of the staff.
By the end of the campaign, his desk held two computers and six television screens. His 15-hour days would end right before the nightly television news—just in time for him to get some sleep and do it all over again the next day. “There was a pretty constant push,” he says. “It was fascinating to see how the media worked with such a compressed news cycle.”
The long hours don’t seem to faze Finkenbinder, who says he keeps awake by focusing on the work in front of him. But if staying awake isn’t a problem, waking up on time is. On this spring’s whirlwind trip of Europe with Obama, he estimates he slept about two hours a night over ten days. He’d set the alarms in his hotel rooms and on his wristwatch and also ask the front desk for a wake-up call. “The hardest part is making sure you set enough alarms and remember what time zone you are in,” he says.
Heather Higginbottom, the Obama campaign’s policy director, says it was Finkenbinder’s work ethic during the 2008 campaign that brought him a promotion from behind the computer screen to assistant press secretary on the campaign team. After the Democratic convention in August, he was on the road, living out of a suitcase until Obama’s election in November.
“The amazing thing about Ben is that he had impossible hours during the primary campaign,” says Higginbottom, now the White House Policy Council’s deputy director. “He had to get up in the middle of the night to begin preparing the clips, which was a critical function of the campaign. And despite his 3 a.m. wake-up call, he was always in a good mood and one of the nicest people to be around.”
After the election, Finkenbinder and Higginbottom were among a handful of campaign workers who remained in Chicago, helping with press conferences at which Obama announced his cabinet appointees. Then he flew with Obama to Washington on January 3 as the president-elect made his triumphant arrival in the nation’s capital. “There was lots of nervous energy,” says Finkenbinder. “We were leaving Chicago, which had been our home.”
Now he has an office in the West Wing of the White House, flies on Air Force One, and passes the ball to the president on fast breaks in basketball games at the Department of Interior gymnasium. Not bad for a onetime Macalester benchwarmer.
As for what’s next, Finkenbinder either doesn’t know or isn’t saying. “I’m not trying to look ahead too much,” he says. “I’m seeing things that in a million years I never thought I’d see.”
David McKay Wilson is a frequent contributor to numerous alumni magazines around the country.