How To Get Things Done in a Divided Nation with Samantha Power
S1: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg. So we took the first couple of weeks of twenty twenty one off because we figured, you know, what’s going to happen? It’s going to be a kind of slow time.
S2: Pro Trump rioters have stormed the Capitol building. We’re one room. A person has been shot. Congress has been unlawfully blocked from carrying out its constitutional duty to certify the results of the November election.
S1: Washington, D.C., as you know, is still sifting through the wreckage of earlier this month. President Trump has been impeached for a second time. Political fights are dominating the agenda and all. That’s a pretty tough situation for an incoming president and new lawmakers. The beginning of a new Congress is usually this time of year of hope, especially for first time legislators who come to Washington, D.C., brimming with ideas and a sense of idealism.
S3: It is my great honor to preside over this sacred ritual of renewal as we gather under the dome of this temple of democracy to begin the one hundred and seventy Congress.
S1: But today, the nation is divided, racially divided, and our politics have become not just difficult but dangerous. That, however, is not stopping one freshman lawmaker.
S4: All right, Marilyn Strickland, congresswoman elect from the 10th District of Washington State. Congratulations. Thank you. Have you gotten tired of saying it? Yeah, I have. We get sworn in on the 3rd of January so I can do another version that just says Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland from Washington State’s 10th District.
S1: I spoke to Congressman Strickland a few weeks ago before the riots at the Capitol and before she was sworn in as the first African-American to represent Washington state in Congress and the first Korean American woman ever elected to the House of Representatives.
S4: So my people are from Georgia on my father’s side. And he joined the military as a young man, fought in two wars and was stationed in Korea, where he met my mother and our family moved to the states during a time in America when it was illegal for my parents to be married to each other.
S1: Representative Strickland eventually grew up to become mayor of Tacoma, Washington, which has always been kind of overshadowed by Seattle, which is about 30 miles away. I was just tired of people talking trash about my hometown as mayor of Tacoma for eight years, she became known as a real problem solver. And then two years ago, she decided to run for Congress.
S4: And it really comes back to a conversation I had with my mother. She’s 91 years old. She’s still alive today. And when I proposed to her the idea of running for office, her answer was very straightforward. She said, well, of course, you have to do this. You have responsibility. There was a time in America when people who looked like you couldn’t vote. Of course, you’re going to do this in congresswoman elected.
S1: Do you mind if I call you Marilyn? You sure can. Please call. Thank you. Thank you. So so, Marilyn, you’ll be headed to D.C. soon and taking office soon. And I imagine if I was in a situation similar to yours, I part of me would be really anxious. What are you what are you feeling right now?
S5: You know, when you have the opportunity to serve in local government, I tell people that is the inventory of government. You are on the front lines every week. But you’re right. You know, going to D.C. with this giant body of people who represent different parts of the country with the whole variety of political affiliations is different.
S6: So how does Maryland navigate this new landscape? How does she make a difference while remaining true to her roots and beliefs? To answer those questions, we turn to someone who has thought a lot about how to stay an idealist even once you’re in the belly of Washington, D.C.. Samantha Power, former U.N. ambassador under Obama, a Pulitzer Prize winning human rights activist, and President Biden’s new pick to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development.
S7: And like Maryland, someone who once showed up in Washington wondering how things actually work to go into a new domain and kind of admit how little you know and that you’re starting almost from scratch is a hard thing to do.
S6: But Samantha did eventually figure out how to stick to our guns and still get things done even when dealing with adversaries like the Russians. And consider the last few weeks, we could all use some of those lessons. So stay with us.
S1: Samantha, let me ask you, I mean, what do you wish someone had told you before you went to Washington, D.C.?
S7: Never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.
S1: In 2009, Barack Obama had just been elected president and Samantha was one of his aides when she was invited for the first time to brief him in the Oval Office.
S8: I was going to go in there. I was going to just nail the briefing. He was going to remember how brilliant, indispensable I was. That was walk in privileges were going to be forthcoming. And I walk over and as it happens, pregnant at the time, I think seven months pregnant. And I cross from my office and I get into the West Wing and I just think I don’t actually know where the Oval Office is.
S1: And so there’s Samantha ready to work with the new president to solve the world’s human rights problems. And she realizes she is totally and completely lost.
S8: So I go back to my office, I go onto my computer under the unclassified system, Google Oval Office, West Wing map, print it out, go back over. And of course, the map is like basically a Washington power map about, you know, where’s Valerie Jarrett sitting in relation to Barack Obama in relation to David Axelrod. It’s not a map to find the body. So so I go in and I’m carrying this map 10 minutes late. I’m sweating, I’m pregnant, I’m stressed out. You know, the briefing time is over. The secretary general is about to arrive. But the point of the story is not even the chaos and indignity and relative humiliation of that particular experience. It’s that I just thought I was all alone. Like, I could have asked somebody, where’s the Oval? Right. I didn’t want to be the person who didn’t know her way around, so I didn’t ask the question. So I end up late. And what’s incredibly cool and I think such a profound insight is that when I finally basically had friends, I learned that so many of them had printed out the same math, the same experience. But I come back to this expression, don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides. Everybody else look like they knew exactly what they were doing, that they had it all figured out. And I’m so self-conscious and wanting to make a good impression and so forth.
S7: And so I guess the lesson on one level is to ask questions, of course, and not be afraid of showing vulnerability in that way.
S9: Marilyn, how does that strike? You know, it strikes me, as you know, Samantha, saying it’s OK to be vulnerable and to demonstrate you don’t know everything. And I’m going to use an example that seems kind of trifling. But, you know, I remember, you know, on the during our freshman orientation a few weeks ago, you know, we were you know, we went to the Hill, we’re walking to the halls of Congress, and every woman is wearing heels or some version of a heel shoe. Well, I don’t travel without flats. And by the time two and a half hours took place, I just changed my shoes and put flats on. And somebody was like, oh, my God, I brought mine to everyone starts changing their shoes. And we just talk about just some very practical things. So it’s little things like that that show, look, I’m not perfect. We know we have to present a certain way, but we’re all human here.
S6: So here’s our first lesson. It’s OK to admit what you don’t know, to be vulnerable to to sometimes change your shoes. In fact, it’s usually in that vulnerability and the uncertainty that we get our first and sometimes our best allies. And having ours, of course, is important because they’re the ones who help us figure out how to be effective. By the time Samantha became an aide to Obama, she’d become, as one magazine put it, a Joan of Arc for humanitarian intervention, someone who had spent most of her life as a human rights activist railing against the system. And now, though she knew strongly what she believed, she was suddenly part of that system and she was completely certain how to actually get things done.
S7: Here I am ready to try to help, for example, the people of Darfur who I’ve been advocating on behalf of for several years, I’m trying to support them and use my new perch as the president’s human rights adviser to do so. And I don’t know how the hell to write a decision memo or who would has to go to and and who I have to get it cleared through without coalitions, without allies and personal relationships. You’re just pushing water uphill.
S4: It’s nice for me to listen to Samantha talk because I’m taking notes about things we have in common, you know, and you come in guns blazing. You want to do all these things and then you realize a few things. You realize that large institutions are not built for change. They are built to defend the status quo. And often when you want to propose change, you’re met with suspicion and people get defensive. The other thing that’s interesting, too, is that, you know, the political, social and economic systems in which we have to operate as women and even more so for me as a woman of color, do not always welcome us into positions of leadership. So often when we are trying to lead on things, it takes more effort. And Samantha talked about the coalition building you have to do, which is essential if we’re going to move anything through a place like Congress.
S1: In the best way to build those coalitions is to try and figure out some deeply human way to connect with other people. Take, for instance, Samantha’s experiences at the U.N. with former Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin.
S7: His position on Syria versus my position on Syria were night and day. And yet it turns out we both love sports and we both had a son and a daughter.
S1: Yeah. Can I ask something that I feel like I hear that advice very frequently about politics, that what we need is we need people reaching across the aisle and forming human connections. And yet it seems like it’s one of those things that’s much harder to do than to to want to do. What do we do to find that connection?
S7: Well, I’d offer a couple of examples in the in the context of the Russian ambassador, because it was the relationship that had the highest degree of difficulty. I mean, just taking time outside the formal settings of the U.N., going to NBA basketball games.
S1: You know, having and you would you would literally call him up and say, like, hey, Vitaly, do you want to come see, like, a Nets game?
S7: Yeah. I mean, sometimes I’d need to cool off for days before, you know, it isn’t I’m not so large and without the capacity for moral outrage, I mean, he would cross lines that would make it impossible for me to to do what I’m describing. But, you know, after cooling off, I had to recognize I couldn’t get one thing done on behalf of human rights, on behalf of preventing sexual violence against women and girls. There’s not one thing that I could do in the U.N. Security Council without Russia acquiescing to it. So I just did not have the luxury. And I think American politics, particularly in divided government, is a lot like that.
S1: Marilyn, is that something you think about, about how to position yourself in the spirit that you bring to the negotiations you’ll be part of in order to try and find that common ground?
S4: You see these folks on TV and press conferences in there in the halls of Congress. And then when you meet folks, they are parents, they are grandparents, they are people who just want to do good. And, you know, just some just some people make you question whether that’s true. Absolutely. But for the most part, you know, what you want to try and do is get to know people off the clock. With all that spare time, you’re going to have late night. And, you know, in the end, that’s the challenge. You know, I know I I hear stories of, you know, back in the day when people actually, you know, spent more time living in D.C., their kids went to school there. They would see each other at softball games, at events, at churches. And, you know, it’s a different relationship and it takes time to form these relationships. But I you know, I will come back to the moment that we are in in the crisis that we are facing here domestically and around the world, and how this has to be one of those times when, you know, getting covid, losing your job, not having health care, those things cut across any party affiliation.
S5: Yeah. And at some point, people at home are saying, wait a minute, you need to do something. We need some relief here. What is the holdup?
S6: And of course, it’s even harder to pass new laws after a riot at the Capitol and an impeachment, all of which is only made the sense of crisis in D.C. more acute. But when we come back, Samantha and Marilyn will talk about how moments like this can also lead to real lessons in leadership.
S1: We’re back with Representative Marilyn Strickland, who’s just starting her first term in Washington, and Samantha Power, a human rights activist, former U.N. ambassador and just nominated by Joe Biden to run the U.S. Agency for International Development. Samantha says that the way she got here goes back to this one night in 1989 when she was an intern at a local TV station in Atlanta. She was a budding sports reporter editing baseball highlights when breaking news came in from China.
S7: The footage from Tiananmen Square was beamed in on the news feed and it was uncut, unfiltered and gastly. Honestly, it was young people my age. I was only 18 then, I think. And they were protesting to try to get the Chinese government to liberalize and the crackdown began. So it was a revelation to me that that the fate of young people in a square in Beijing would would affect me, as this did.
S1: After college, Samantha worked as a war correspondent in the Balkans, an experience that later shaped her Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide A Problem from Hell, which is how she caught Obama’s attention. But when Samantha joined Obama’s cabinet, she smacked up against this cold, hard reality that governing, like every kind of job, presents challenges in managing not only the issues but other people in The Situation Room.
S7: I often felt like each of us came in, including me, by the way, that we’d come in with a predisposition, with an idea of what we wanted to get out of the meeting. And sometimes when Obama felt like I was being not sufficiently prescriptive, he would snap at me and say, We’ve all read your book, Samantha. And my thought bubble was actually I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure copies can be made available upon exit. But I, of course, felt crummy. But Obama almost invariably, I think pretty much every time that we had an exchange like this, there were probably a half dozen times something like that happened, would come back to me ten minutes later and say, let’s get back to Sam’s point. I was a little hard on her. Let’s let’s let’s tease that out a little bit. Sampras’s you would know that in the meeting. In the meeting. But then the other cool thing is pretty much every time I would receive a note passed from the head of the table, but not from the president, from the vice president and written on the note would say something like and this is often when Biden, by the way, would disagree with me, but he would on the note would say somebody and I have a stack of them here in my office would say something like, that’s exactly why you’re here. He needs to hear this. One of them said, Go Irish exclamation mark. I said, never stop raising your voice. In other words, his emotional intelligence to see I’m demoralized, I’m kind of slouching in my chair. And and Biden, just the human touch sort of seeing beyond the issue at hand to the individual who is wallowing a little bit at the end of the table, but also a Decision-Making style wanting that dissent.
S4: Yeah, well, you know, and one thing I will say is that sometimes people get defensive because you have to make a hard decision. And when you start to internalize and say, wow, they’re questioning my values as a human being, it can make you get defensive. And so I think that when we talk about leadership lessons and dissent is important, but understand, too, that sometimes the way you hear something and the way that makes you feel makes you react a certain way. And I’ve been in situations where people have called me names and say, you don’t care about people, you don’t care about this. And it just makes you feel really horrible because you would not get into this public service if you didn’t care about people.
S6: This is our next big lesson when we’re trying to stay idealistic while also trying to move the levers of power, we need to remember that our emotional lives and the way we treat our co-workers is people that’s often as important or more important than the memos we write or the initiatives we push. But that also brings up another kind of interesting question, which is how do we decide which ideas or initiatives or plans are worth our time? Because there’s only so many hours in a day for Samantha. She uses what she calls the X test.
S7: Every time I was at a juncture and deciding what was next or whether I should pursue some crazy idea I’d had, I would pose the question this way, which is if all I get out of in that instance, moving to the Balkans and trying my hand as a freelancer is I learn Serbo-Croatian, I learn how to write quickly and maybe more crisply. I’ll see the U.N. in action. So to be just there and learning that set of things, I mean, she said that would be better than any graduate education and I would come back having grown.
S6: That’s the test if all you achieve is X, if all you get is something short of your hopes, but but still you learn something valuable and you help at least a little bit. Is it still worthwhile to try? The X test is important because it gives us a way to figure out what deserves our attention and what we can safely say, like I’m going to let that pass by. And this test, for instance, is why Samantha ended up working for Obama in the first place. At that point, he was just, you know, a U.S. senator and Samantha was at the time a professor, which was one of the first, like, really stable jobs she’d ever gotten.
S7: I finally had health insurance, my mother was finally calm, that I wasn’t going to be living the life of the freelancer for the rest of time, and I was stable. Everything was good on paper. But then I just had that dinner with Obama. And and so the desk there was just if all I get out of spending a year in the Senate office is to be a better teacher on campus and to to have a more complex and multifaceted understanding of how foreign policy is made or checked, then it’ll have been worth it. And women in particular, sometimes at career junctures, have described to me this this inhibition, this fear of this sort of loss aversion of like, well, I have maybe Marilyn felt this. And in having been such a successful local politician, you know, it can be really daunting to think about losing. But if instead you say, look, if all that happens is I throw the hat in the ring, you know, show what a woman of color can achieve and get the grassroots exercised around a set of issues that haven’t been as prominent as they should have been in prior congressional races. Even if I lose, like, that’s not nothing.
S4: That is such a good point about not being risk averse when you’re making changes in your career and also just the idea of running for office. And, you know, having been a mayor for two terms and at this stage in my career saying, oh, you know, was it a good idea to run for Congress? Absolutely. And when you think about the risk, you know, and I will tell you, I mean, you have to come from a place of comfort and privilege to take these risks, because first I can say what’s the worst thing that can happen? Well, you know, I’m married and I live a relatively comfortable life and I’ll find a job eventually doing something. I’ve got a skill set.
S1: Samantha, you mentioned that before you went into government, before you became an insider, you were an activist. You were an outsider. I mean, you’re someone who was very openly critical of some of the decisions that both Democrats and Republicans had made when it came to foreign affairs as you entered government. How do you know that you’re staying true to the activist and the passion you bring when standing up in the middle of a White House meeting and saying. We’re doing the wrong thing, we have to act now, might not carry the day in the White House, might not do anything.
S7: You have that same set of objectives. I had a list I kept a list on taped to my computer when I was a White House staffer. I kept that same list that a different version, an updated version of the list, but the same genre taped to my computer when I was U.N. ambassador. And so to just be pragmatic, being effective outside and being effective inside means meeting people where they are. Did I lose? And when I lost it, I did. I like it. Absolutely not. What was the story? I told myself? I guess I would say I tried to journaled a lot. I tried to go mad. I didn’t want to be one of those people who kind of rationalized, you know, staying in government. If there were lines that were crossed and I had written about I had valorise people who resigned from government on principle. So I always tried to to say self aware. And usually that meant like actually making lists of what I was achieving, where I was failing, what the opportunities were as I went ahead.
S6: So to quickly recap, after you figure out what you want to achieve, prioritize your time and make sure to hold yourself accountable. Write down why you’re doing this stuff in the first place. Write it down when you start tape that list to your computer. So you see it every day. And as time goes by, remember to ask yourself if I stayed true to these goals or am I allowed myself to get distracted by by all the noise that just creeps in any job. If someone was listening to this who’s not in government, but they’re stepping into a leadership role at their company or they’re stepping into the CEO role or they’re going to they’re going to take over the local nonprofit.
S1: You know what what would you advise to anyone about what you’ve learned about leadership and how to use it that you think is valuable for them to hear?
S8: I’d say, for starters, to meet people where they are as a leader, you have to learn where they are. Right? Often and often leaders are making a lot of assumptions that though, interestingly, people are exactly where I am. I’m going to meet them where I am, which is where they must be. Right.
S7: So it really does require a kind of solicitousness and, you know, just just listening and learning and feedback mechanisms and so forth. It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s really easy to feel like you’re not making a dent. I mean, I really feel for Maryland coming to Congress, all these constituents who have these expectations of her and they want her to deal with climate change, racial injustice and the pandemic.
S4: When you talk about making change in any respect, it is an ecosystem. You have people who are activists, you have people who are insiders, and you have people who resist change. And in the system, you have to find a way to come up with compromise, to move things forward. And you often hear in the dialogue about change that, well, you’re just an incrementalist. And people say that in a very pejorative way. And I remind folks that we would not be having a conversation about universal health care had we not passed the Affordable Care Act. And sometimes things just take time.
S1: Yeah, no, that makes sense. Marilyn, let me ask you something else. When you think about, you know, moving to D.C. and starting this new job, like, what are you most excited about?
S4: You know, I was talking to a sitting member of Congress and, you know, she said to me, she said, look, you know, you’ve come off of a long, hard campaign. You go right into freshman orientation and it’s a lot of information that’s coming your way and being thrown at you. And she said and there’s going to come a point during your first month where you’re going to walk past the Capitol at night, you’re going to turn around and look back at that building being lit up and you’re going to say, oh, my God, I’m here. And I think about my family’s origin story and the fact that their daughter became mayor of the hometown and then now is going to represent in Congress.
S5: And so just really thinking about the privilege of representing and doing this job. When I think about just in my lifetime, people who look like me couldn’t even vote.
S1: Yeah. Samantha, let me ask you just one last question. Do you have any parting advice for idealists who might be listening, who who are excited, but but are also anxious about whether they they’ll actually be able to creatively change?
S7: Shrinking the change, I think, allows people to define for themselves targets that they can achieve. And achievement is fuel since we’ve talked about Barack Obama. I’ll give him the last word, which is when he and I were sometimes arguing about and I was wanting to do something bigger and he was seeing the full field and had all of his domestic challenges and working across the aisle and all the rest of things that I wasn’t having to think about as much as him. He would say to me, Sam, better is good, better is good. And it’s then usually add some version of and it turns out better is actually a hell of a lot harder sometimes than worse. And so so like I think there’s something I think that’s motivational. I feel like, like let’s work for better and then we can we can keep getting busy after that.
S10: Thank you to Representative Marilyn Strickland and former Ambassador Samantha Power for sharing their stories and all of their fantastic advice. You should definitely look for Samantha’s book, The Education of an Idealist, a memoir. And of course, watch for Marilyn on C-SPAN. Do you have a problem that needs solving or a world changing piece of legislation that you hope to to make into a law? If so, you should send us a noted how to add slate dotcom. Or you can always leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produce a show. And Marc Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Janice Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of audio special. Thanks to Maggie Taylor. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.