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ObamaCorps: Daniel Restrepo
By Larry Teitelbaum
"For all the cruelty and hardship of the world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice."
Barack Obama, Nobel Lecture, Dec. 10, 2009


White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, left, listens to Dan Restrepo L99, President Barack Obama's senior adviser on Latin America, speak about the changes in America's Cuba policy, Monday, April 13, 2009, in the pressroom at the White House in Washington.  
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, left, listens to Dan Restrepo L99, President Barack Obama's senior adviser on Latin America, speak about the changes in America's Cuba policy, Monday, April 13, 2009, in the pressroom at the White House in Washington.

Daniel Restrepo L'99 didn't fully realize how far the voice of the U.S. White House carries until, one day, he spoke for it. In Spanish.

Four months into Barack Obama's presidency, Restrepo, a special assistant to President Obama and a senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, entered a briefing room alongside White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Gibbs announced Obama's new policies on Cuba, which would facilitate a freer flow of people and information between the United States and Cuba.

Then Restrepo took the podium and repeated the announcement in Spanish, delivering the first non-English language White House press briefing in history. This was second nature for Restrepo, a first generation American of Colombian and Spanish parents. "People from all around the world, who in some way were touched by that briefing, called me up to tell me where they were when they spilled coffee on themselves while watching television," recalls Restrepo. Old friends and producers of Spanishlanguage media alike contacted Restrepo to thank him for the briefing and its recognition of the Spanish-speaking population in the United States.

"Working at the White House, you can lose track of how much reach the work you do has, not just in the U.S. but around the world," says Restrepo. "But that experience really underscored the responsibility one has when you're working for the President of the United States that what you do here can make a real difference."

Restrepo's job is to implement Obama's vision for how the U.S. should interact with the other thirty-four countries in the Western Hemisphere. There is no typical workday at the NSC "at least, I haven't found one yet," says Restrepo and the country or issue he's thinking about switches constantly over the course of each day. He chairs frequent meetings between U.S. federal agencies and foreign visitors, and keeps Obama's national security advisor briefed on matters in the Western Hemisphere that might require the president's attention.

His first year on the job has been "more challenging than a lot of people had anticipated," says Restrepo. In the spring of 2009, the H1N1 pandemic broke out in North America. That summer, former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup. And at the beginning of 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti. Add to that the more recent 8.8 quake, one of the most powerful ever recorded, in Chile.

"I knew Haiti was already the poorest country in the hemisphere," says Restrepo. "So the potential magnitude of the humanitarian crisis that was going to be created by a 7.1 earthquake came to mind very quickly as I and others began gathering more facts." Even at the NSC, Restrepo acknowledges, "information doesn't always come as quickly as you'd like."

At 39, Restrepo is older than many of his fellow Penn Law alumni at the White House. After graduating, he clerked and practiced law at Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington, D.C. until 2004, when he joined the Center for American Progress and became director of The Americas Project there. At the beginning of 2007, he joined the presidential campaign of the man for whom he now works.

Restrepo is remarkably modest about his professional ambitions and legacy. His own success at the NSC, Restrepo says, "doesn't much matter it's how effective we are as a government in making the lives of people in the Americas better than they were on the day that President Obama took office."