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Getting inside Obama's 'brain'

  • Story Highlights
  • As Barack Obama's chief policy director, Karen Kornbluh called "a big ideas person"
  • Kornbluh recalls meeting Obama: "This is a guy who is going to shake things up"
  • Mother of two: Government policies need updating to keep up with working families
  • Adviser says president-elect has "an ability to focus on people's real lives"
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By Ashley Fantz
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(CNN) -- Karen Kornbluh is not famous, but her ideas are. As Barack Obama's chief policy director, political insiders call her his "brain."

Karen Kornbluh, Barack Obama's chief policy director in the Senate, writes extensively about women and families.

"Karen is a big ideas person, but more than that, she's able to bring a lot of really smart people together and convince them to leave their egos at the door," remarked The Washington Note blogger Steve Clemons. "She was a key reason why Obama's message resonated."

Kornbluh, 45, was the chief architect of the 2008 Democratic platform and the former deputy chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin during the Clinton administration.

She has written extensively about women and families. Her most famous essays "The Mommy Tax," "The Joy of Flex" and "Families Valued" contend that modern American families are overworked, underpaid and deserve more respect from the federal government.

She has been quoted by many high-profile politicians, from Sen. Joseph Lieberman to former Sen. John Edwards.

Her sons, ages 7 and 11, were impressed that their mother authored the plan that energized an entire party this year. But they really wanted to know one thing: "Is your name going to be on it?" they asked her. Somewhat shy and a self-described "wonk," she was slightly mortified to see that it was. They thought it was the coolest.

Kornbluh spoke exclusively to CNN about working with the president-elect:

CNN: You've been an influential behind-the-scenes player in D.C. for years. What drove you to get into public life?

Kornbluh: I was born in New York, and I went to public schools there. Our mother worked, and I was one of the very few kids that I knew who had a working mother. I resented it at the time, but in retrospect, I recognize the pressure she was under.

One of the things that drives me is thinking about families that are just trying to do the right thing and how we can make their lives easier. My father used to work in local politics, and I'd go to a lot of meetings with him. I just caught the bug.

CNN: How did you first meet Barack Obama and become his policy director in his Senate office?

Kornbluh: I met him through mutual friends -- people I knew in Washington knew him from law school. I was struck by so much with him -- first his intelligence -- but he also had an understanding of what was really happening with families. I left [that initial meeting] thinking, "This is a guy who is going to shake things up in Washington." He had an ability to focus on people's real lives and not just thinking in terms of what Washington thinks.

I remember when people were trying to talk to him about international trade policy in a very abstract way, and he kept bringing it back to jobs. He was so focused on, "OK, but how are we going to create good jobs in this country?"

CNN: Can you give me some insight into how he makes decisions. I've read that you and another adviser would arrange casual conversation groups -- economic experts, communications specialists -- and just have dinner while Obama sat back and listened.

Kornbluh: In his first year in the Senate, I did bring in experts to engage with him on issues he cared about. People would leave the meetings, saying, "You know we used to have dinners like this; we used to have meetings like this in Washington, where we would really exchange views, but we don't get to do it [anymore]."

CNN: As a wife and mother of two young children, you can probably relate to the challenges that American families now face. You've long argued -- and Obama ran with this idea in his speeches to great success -- that there should be a modernized social insurance system that would better meet the needs of "juggler families." What is a juggler family? What needs to happen so that that system is put in place?

Kornbluh: This is an issue that has often become a casualty of the culture wars until this election when Barack Obama was really the most pro-family candidate in history. In 1960, 70 percent of families fit the "Leave It to Beaver" model, with a breadwinner and a homemaker.

Today, that's reversed, and most families have either two parents working or a single parent working. A third of kids in America are being raised by a single mother. And these families are working hard because they have to, because their wages aren't rising -- so they have to work harder just to pay the bills. Unfortunately, government policies haven't kept up, and we still act as though working parents are an exception.

CNN: That's true, but how to fix that is the question. Are tax incentives for businesses to help their employees the answer? Is it a matter of money or changing a culture or both? Our economy is in such a bad situation, and that kind of populist approach in his speeches took off with the electorate. I wonder how long that will last if the economy doesn't improve soon.

Kornbluh: It's a really great question. The way to think about it is we need not new policies but reform of existing policies -- for the new economy and the new family. Programs were put in place by FDR that were built around the breadwinner and the homemaker. Now the family is different, and the economy is different. But the policies haven't changed.

So health insurance and pension coverage are dropping; we don't have early childhood education or child care, and we're one of two developed countries that doesn't offer paid maternity leave. And we also need to have a discussion about how important parenting is, the challenges parents face, and what can be done in the workplace to make that easier. Many companies have figured this out, and we need to share those lessons more broadly. And parents shouldn't feel alone -- they should feel that what they're doing is of national importance.

CNN: Was there ever a time where you felt like you were the recipient of some sexism that stopped you, or at least put a barrier up that you had to get around?

Kornbluh: Well, this was the real epiphany for me. My mom was a feminist and working mom, and I thought I was beyond all that, that our generation was going to succeed because of the work that they had done. So [my thinking was], "Thank you very much, but now everything's fine." But it struck me after I had children.

I was working in economic policy -- I had been a management consultant and at the time I had my first son I was director of legislative affairs at the [Federal Communications Commission] and then quickly became deputy chief of staff at Treasury. I had been progressing up the career ladder. And when I had children, I looked around and realized that if you wanted to be a mother or a father and spend time with your kids and be successful in the workplace, it was so hard. I was embarrassed once that hit me that I hadn't been sensitive to it before. I felt badly for how impatient I had been with other parents who had to leave early to get home. I felt like such an idiot.

We had a nanny who was great -- but I would get home at 7, and I would have missed my son's entire day -- and yet I would be leaving work before all the real meetings began. I felt like I was missing his childhood -- and I didn't have the same face time as others at work. It was very rare to be a senior woman with kids -- or a senior man with kids and a working spouse. And so many of my incredibly talented friends were dropping out of the workplace completely because it was so hard to find a good part-time job. Finally, when my son was 2, and I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I quit, took some time off and then went to a think tank, where I could write about some of these issues.

CNN: Women made some gains on November 4 -- North Carolina got its first female governor, for example. What has the entire 2008 election season meant for women?

Kornbluh: We'll be figuring that out for a long time to come. To go from having a young family with the Obamas, Michelle Obama talking about what it's like to be a working mom, Barack Obama talking about what it's like being raised by a single mother. You had Sen. Hillary Clinton, Gov. [Sarah] Palin and you had all these women candidates.

Women voted in high numbers for Barack Obama, and they saw him as the great advocate. People see that he gets it. He really understands what's going on in their lives. Maybe that's what the gain is in this election. Women's issues were seen as mainstream issues and that people got to vote on the basis of that.

CNN: There was a lot of talk from both sides during the election that Washington is out of touch. You have spent your career working with politicians. Do you ever get tired of politics?

Kornbluh: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely. Washington can be like a real bubble. It's really easy to lose touch with what's going on in people's lives. If you listen to politicians, sometimes it's like they reach into a grab bag and they pull out standard talking point No. 67. Your average American doesn't think very much about politics.


CNN: As someone who has enjoyed a quiet kind of leadership in Washington, it's expected that you're going to get more face time now as more people pay attention to how you helped shape Obama's policies. Are you ready for that? Do you embrace it?

Kornbluh: The thing I embrace is helping this administration be as successful as it's going to be. Whatever we can do to help him succeed, help people understand what it is he's trying to do. It's going to be a wonderful time in our country.

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