WASHINGTON – President Obama has a guy who pierces the stressful bubble he inhabits every day. This assistant is constantly at the president’s side quietly doing whatever is needed: write a few remarks, lighten the mood with a baseball update or even play a round of golf on the weekend.
That guy is Minnetonka native Joe Paulsen.
“Joe has been an essential member of my team from Day One,” Obama said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “And over the years, he’s become a great friend.”
Paulsen has served with Obama since his fledgling Iowa campaign in 2007, initially performing menial duties, including scheduler.
After Obama’s first victory, Paulsen and about 50 of his friends moved from Chicago to Washington and got jobs in the administration.
Through the years, Paulsen has toiled in relative obscurity as an assistant, then doing advance planning and finally working for the deputy chief of staff.
Paulsen’s loyalty paid off, and eventually he started traveling with the president. Two years ago, he moved into a work space right outside the Oval Office and became Obama’s special assistant, or “body man,” the person constantly at the president’s side.
“His job requires a unique level of dedication, intelligence, people skills and, I’ll admit, humor — all of which he’s got in abundance,” Obama said. “He’s a smart, steady presence here at the White House, on the road and around the world. Everybody likes Joe. Joe can sit down with a corporate CEO or one of the kitchen staff and treat them with equal respect. … I’m lucky to have him on my team through the finish line and beyond.”
Paulsen isn’t the only Minnesotan in Obama’s inner circle. The president’s longtime chief of staff is Denis McDonough, a Stillwater native.
Paulsen is usually among the first staffers to greet the president in the morning and the last to go home at night. Throughout the day, he’s with Obama at meetings and events, taking note of his questions and little things the president may need. A critical task, Paulsen must gauge the mood of the room and know exactly the right moment to inject some levity.
“There are obviously very intense moments in his day and, like any day, there are lulls,” said Paulsen, 32. “So what I try to do, since I’m around all the time, is both lighten the mood and connect him to what is going on outside.”
Paulsen offered an example. “If he has five minutes before he has a meeting, we talk about sports, we talk about what movies we’ve seen, I ask him, ‘Have you seen this TV show?’ I think that’s part of my job.”
Paulsen grew up in a family with deep ties to the DFL. He is a son of DFL state Sen. Terri Bonoff, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen (no relation) in Minnesota’s Third Congressional District.
Bonoff described her son as “very calm and cool in every situation.”
Paulsen got his start in politics opening U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s first campaign office in 2005, when she was running for an open seat.
He quickly proved adept at figuring out how to make things that are important to his boss work within the parameters of packed schedules. Klobuchar recalls a time back in 2005 when Paulsen found a bookstore in Fargo with a Harry Potter party. That allowed Klobuchar’s then-12-year-old daughter to attend the party while she hit a campaign event in Moorhead.
“You have to be versatile, you can’t be like, ‘Oh that’s not my job.’ You have to do a lot of different things, you have to be aware of the problems, looking for things that can happen,” Klobuchar said. “You have to be fairly even-keeled and upbeat.”
Paulsen, who is not married, describes the best and worst parts of the job actually being the same thing. Obama’s rigorous travel and unpredictable schedule has brought him to almost every state in the nation and dozens of countries.
The demands of the job require a sunny, always-say-yes disposition and a decade of shirking his personal life, Paulsen said. He has routinely had to cancel on friends and family because of a last-minute request or trip. The day the Star Tribune interviewed him, he was supposed to be in Washington all day. But plans changed abruptly, and he had to fly to Israel with the president for four hours to attend the funeral of former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
“There are times when I’ve missed events and things like that,” said Paulsen, whose salary is $116,679, according to the most recent White House records. “Fortunately, I have understanding family and a group of friends who are happy with what I’m doing and understand.”
At one point, Obama asked Paulsen to tag along for a round of golf. Paulsen played in high school and in college and describes his ability as “like any person who plays not enough to be great.”
Paulsen quickly became one of Obama’s favorite golfing buddies, and the two have played at least 83 rounds together, according to Mark Knoller at CBS News, who tracks the data.
Paulsen plans on sticking with Obama after he leaves the White House in January as a special assistant. He said neither of them knows exactly what the future holds, but he looks forward to the next chapter.
“I’ll continue to have a role similar to what I have now, which is undefined,” Paulsen said. “It will be busy, and he [Obama] doesn’t intend to retire. I think he intends to work on issues important to him, and I’m looking forward to that.”