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ObamaCorps: Nicole Isaac
By Larry Teitelbaum
"Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?"
Barack Obama, Democratic National Convention, July 27, 2004

Nicole Isaac L'04, deputy director of legislative affairs for Vice President Biden, confers with the vice president in the Russell Senate Office Building.  
Nicole Isaac L'04, deputy director of legislative affairs for Vice President Biden, confers with the vice president in the Russell Senate Office Building.

Nicole Isaac L'04 had five years under her belt in Washington when she went to work for Vice President Joe Biden. She had been an attorney in the Office of Legislative Counsel and floor counsel for Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-ILL.) But she never set foot in the White House until last March, when she became deputy director of legislative affairs for the vice president. On her first day she found herself down the hall from the president for the first of what have become daily meetings to discuss legislation.

"It was absolutely humbling to walk by the Rose Garden and to look towards the Oval Office. It was a breathtaking experience."

Over the last several months Isaac has settled into her job as one of the vice president's liaisons to Congress. In that role, she briefs Vice President Biden on the prospects for legislation, as well as tracks the progress of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and monitors the workings of the Middle Class Task Force. She has also been intimately involved in issues pertaining to heath care reform and other legislative reforms, often attending and assisting in the preparations for meetings.

To keep watch on congressional actions, Isaac maintains an office in the Capitol. On this day in mid-December she occupies the Vice President's Ceremonial Office for the interview. In the room sits President Johnson's Oval Office desk, on which President Kennedy's signature is faintly visible in the wood. The desk had been Johnson's when he was Kennedy's vice president.

In this historic setting, Isaac recounts her steep climb to the center of government. She grew up in a single-parent household in the Bronx. She had to contend with bad influences in her neighborhood but studied hard and earned scholarships to private school and to Brown University. In total, she has four degrees including a Master's from Oxford University.

After graduating from Penn Law School, Isaac, 31, went to work in Washington, and later took a six-month leave of absence to clerk for the deputy chief justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. She joined the office of the assistant majority leader in early 2007, and although she did not know it at the time, her job as floor counsel to Sen. Durbin put her in proximity to the next president of the United States. Sen. Durbin introduced her to then-Senator Obama on the Senate floor.

Three years later, she found herself sitting in on meetings with the president.

"I appreciate the president's vision for this country, and it's an honor to contribute to the work of this administration," Isaac says.

To be sure, the circumstances have been difficult during President Obama's first year. He's had a tough time enacting his agenda, and many Americans have been in a surly mood about the economy.

How does Isaac remain upbeat amid the rampant cynicism about government?

She remembers witnessing the moment when the Senate passed its health care bill 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve, leading Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history, to exclaim that the vote was for Teddy Kennedy.

"Those are the moments when we are reminded that the work we do every day is greater than us, than all of us. We are reminded that this work is meant to last beyond our lives." PLJ