White House Insider Pitches Public Service - Despite the Government Shutdown

Chris Lu, former Cabinet Secretary to President Barack Obama. Chris Lu, who spent most of his career in public service and served until recently as Cabinet Secretary to President Barack Obama, came to Saint Mary’s College to extol the value of public service.

It was a gutsy move, all things considered. With nearly the entire U.S. government shut down, political gridlock in Washington, millions of federal workers on furlough, and Americans’ approval of Congress at an all-time low, it’s an especially tough time to make a case for the transformative power of public service.

But, after jokingly acknowledging the irony of his timing, Lu pressed on with his appeal to SMC students, in particular, asking them to “carry on this mantle of public service for the good of our nation.”

Lu began working for Obama in 2008 as the then-senator’s legislative director and acting chief of staff, though they had known each other since their days as Harvard Law School classmates. He led the exploratory committee for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and choreographed his transition to the White House, then took over as his Cabinet Secretary, becoming a key point person in the West Wing and one of the highest-ranking Asian Americans in the government.   

Urging the students to get engaged in public life, Lu quoted a line from the film The American President: “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.”

After a long Q&A session, Lu stayed at the Soda Center to engage with individual students.Chief among those problems is the rampant partisanship in Congress that has resulted in the standoffs, stalemates and now a government shutdown. Echoing President Obama, who said earlier in the day, “We can’t make extortion a routine part of our democracy,” he criticized the culture of intransigence in Congress.

“It’s like negotiating with a hostage taker and at the end of the day, the hostage taker kills the hostages and himself,” Lu said, predicting that the standoff would damage the Republican Party along with the nation.

Lu defended the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and argued that health insurance is critical to preserving “the American Dream.”    

“Unfortunately, we’re moving further and further from the American Dream,” he said, blaming a growing everyone-for-himself individualism in the nation. “I’m not for handouts or the culture of dependency,” he told the audience, “but if you’ve been fortunate enough to achieve success, you don’t kick the ladder so the next person can’t come up.”

It’s clear that Lu still believes in American Dream; in fact, he sees himself as a shining example of it. His father was an orphan who came to the U.S. from China on a church scholarship. Fifty years later,” Lu said, “the son of that immigrant went to work every day in the White House.”

Speaking from the heart, he recalled that when he was young his father told him: “Your education is an inheritance. You have a responsibility to do something meaningful with this inheritance.” He urged his audience, “Use your inheritance for the public good and pass it along to the next generation.”

To those who are disenchanted with government and the current machinations in Washington, Lu said he still believes: “Public service is a mindset. We have to look beyond ourselves.”

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Read more about Lu's visit to Saint Mary's in The Political Blotter, the politics blog of the Contra Costa Times, Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune.

Chris Lu's speech was sponsored by the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action and other campus organizations.