Two months into the Biden administration, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki found herself in need of a new deputy because the old one departed in a scandal, she lured Livonia native Chris Meagher away from his post running the communications shop for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
For Meagher, 38, it was a dream assignment. The Detroit Catholic Central and Michigan State University alum had been working his way up the ranks of moderate Democratic circles for years, but his bounce to Psaki’s No. 2 at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a big leap given his first job as a political spokesperson — for the reelection campaign of California Rep. Lois Capps — came only seven years ago.
As he explains, his path brought him almost by accident back through Michigan when he helped design Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s media strategy for the early months of the pandemic. Now he’s on the biggest political stage in the world, at a time when the Biden White House faces constant crisis and criticism.
Hour Detroit: You’re talking to me from the lawn of the White House. Does it ever get old to work there?
Chris Meagher: No, never. This was my first job here, the first time I’d been here since I visited as a kid. It’s pretty cool walking in every day past all the morning shows on the White House lawn and then looking at the White House as you’re walking in. But from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you put your head on the pillow at night, it is unrelenting.
It’s been a rough go for the Biden administration between the pandemic, the economy, the Afghanistan withdrawal, immigration controversies, and legislative battles in Congress. What’s it like at the center of that hurricane?
Well, that’s what presidents are in the White House to do: deal with crises and work every day to try to make the lives of Americans better. But we passed the American Rescue Plan, which injected a boost into the economy. We’ve gotten 170 million vaccine shots in arms [as of October].
Biden’s poll numbers have cratered. Are there days where you think, “We’re failing here”?
I wouldn’t characterize it like that. Everybody is pretty laser-focused on doing their jobs and doing right by the American people. There are a lot of ups and downs, some days that are easier than others. I wouldn’t characterize it as us failing. We all are in this job to do hard things.
But if polling is down, is that a failure to communicate Biden’s successes?
We’re working hard every day to get the message out there in a variety of mediums, in a variety of places, to a variety of audiences — whether it’s communicating to new audiences the importance of getting vaccinated or making sure people know the benefits available to them through the American Rescue Plan, like the child tax credit.
You moved from the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign to Gov. Whitmer’s staff at the onset of the pandemic and then back to Buttigieg at Transportation. Explain your path to the White House.
Secretary Buttigieg got to know the president on the campaign trail, and the president has spoken of his admiration for Pete. I knew Jen Psaki pretty well over the years, and we always stayed in touch. When an opening came up on her press team, she just texted to see if I’d be interested. Of course I was. A few weeks later, I was walking into the White House for my first day.
Were you hired by Gov. Whitmer specifically to deal with COVID?
Yeah. Secretary Buttigieg dropped out of the Democratic primary in the beginning of March 2020, which also was just as the COVID stuff was really starting to bubble up. At the same time, my then-fiancée moved to Michigan to work on Sen. Gary Peters’ reelection campaign. I came with her, and a week later, everything shut down. I had friends in the governor’s office and I knew they were going through a lot, so I just asked if they could use any extra help. I ended up working there on a contract basis.
How was COVID different from other political communications jobs?
It was something impacting us all and something no one had ever really experienced before. This literally shut down the country. There was a lot of education to be done, helping people understand how serious the threat was, helping people understand how to help prevent it from spreading, how to get used to sitting around your house a little more, why you had to wash your hands and wear a mask and couldn’t travel. And then you inject the politics of the 2020 campaign, and it becomes even more complicated and partisan.
At first, the governor had a surprising amount of bipartisan support. Even Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel was complimentary. There was a surprising amount of unity. Did you know that wasn’t going to hold?
The politics of it evolved as people grew tired and frustrated. But we could rest on the fact that we were working to save lives and to keep people safe. The governor stood strong in the face of criticism, in the face of threats to her life, because she knew what she had to do to keep people safe. She knew people would disagree with her and give her a hard time.
Other governors — Gavin Newsom in California, Andrew Cuomo in New York, even Phil Murphy in New Jersey — held daily press briefings that were carried live on
national cable news networks. Gov. Whitmer did maybe one or two briefings a week, and the networks almost never aired them live. Was that frustrating from a communications standpoint?
I mean, she did a lot of local media. She did a lot of national media. We did multiple events a week. It certainly didn’t bother us. Cuomo and Newsom obviously represent big chunks of the population, and cable news decided to take those live. It was important to reach the people of Michigan and also for her to explain on venues like CNN and MSNBC how she was showing leadership. It’s a balancing act. You’re trying to reach as many people as possible with the most relevant information as possible. We struck a good balance of using her time.
Was it unsettling when Lansing became a prototype for other anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests across the nation?
The public polling showed at the time that the majority of people in Michigan supported what Gov. Whitmer was doing. There’s always going to be a vocal minority, but we knew some of their signage, language, and rhetoric didn’t represent even the vast majority of people who didn’t agree with Gov. Whitmer. It was and continues to be a tough political environment, but that was why it was so important to have her out there, explaining that she was letting the science and the data guide her.
Are there similarities between Buttigieg, Whitmer, and Biden that have drawn you
to work for them?
What people appreciate about the three of them is they’re authentic and will tell the truth and give their honest opinions. When the president took office, he said, “You know, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs and tough moments, but you have my word that I’ll always shoot straight with you.” And all of them want to show people that the government can work for them. After the last four years, that became really important. You see that in Michigan, with Gov. Whitmer. Pete wrote a whole book on the idea of restoring trust in our democracy, trust in our elected officials, and trust in one another.
They’re also generally considered to be moderates. Is that part of the appeal to you?
Yeah, I pride myself on working for people who want to be effective leaders. I’m a former newspaper reporter, and when I first got into politics, I worked for Rep. Lois Capps who represented the central coast of California. She was annually voted by her colleagues to be the nicest member of Congress. It’s always been really important to me to work for somebody who wasn’t a pushover but was a nice person. I also worked for Sen. Tester in Montana. I wouldn’t say anybody would compare him and Pete Buttigieg — he’s a dirt farmer, a big guy, has a flattop haircut and only seven fingers — but both of them tell it like it is.
Both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been to Michigan a lot since taking office. Do you have any influence in that? Are you sort of seen as the Michigan or Midwest expert?
I wouldn’t give me that much credit. I did get to travel with the president when he went to Traverse City around the Fourth of July, which was a lot of fun. I got to see Gov. Whitmer and rode on one of the helicopters with Sens. Stabenow and Peters. It was just a lot of fun to be in my home state with the president of the United States. It was also actually my first trip on Air Force One. So it was pretty special for me.
As a former newspaper reporter, what frustrates you about some of the coverage? Does your background help you at your job?
Well, I can think like a reporter and understand what reporters might be interested in, to help develop our message and prepare for briefings every day. There are times, in our briefing-prep sessions with Jen every morning, when she wants to practice on an issue, and so I just play a reporter.
Was it always your aspiration to work at the White House?
I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind or that it wasn’t something that I thought would be really cool and exciting. It wasn’t my dream to be the person behind the podium at the White House, but if you’re in political communications, it’s obviously a really cool place to be.
This story is featured in the December 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.