When Max Oltersdorf and Jacob Sztraicher were sitting in Martin Chaker’s homeroom at San Dieguito High School Academy in 2010, they could have never expected that in six years they would reunite in the most unlikely of places — the White House.
Oltersdorf and Sztraicher did just that, as staffers in President Barack Obama’s administration over the last year.
They just recently transitioned out of the White House, as President-elect Donald Trump completes his transition.
The two friends are part of a group of four Encinitas men who worked in the administration, and who all attended San Dieguito Academy and all of whom, at least at one time or another, were in Mr. Chaker’s homeroom class. Samuel Young and Nick Gulino are the others.
“It is totally bizarre,” Sztraicher said about the SDA-to-White House connection. “I’d like to say that Mr. Chaker had a positive influence on all of us, but for all of us to wind up at the White House was a pretty crazy coincidence.”
Oltersdorf echoed his friend’s sentiments.
“Mr. Chaker was always supportive and smart and we know he lived an interesting life and did a lot of interesting things,” Oltersdorf said “Maybe some of that rubbed off on us, the desire to do interesting things and make a difference, but other than that I am not sure there was a common thread that led us to the White House.”
Oltersdorf worked in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, an office within the executive office of the President that deals with U.S. trade policy, helping to negotiate trade deals and get them approved by Congress. He started at the White House in 2014 as an intern before rising through the ranks to become a full-time staffer in September 2015.
Sztraicher served as associate director of technology and operations in the Department of Presidential Personnel, where he helped to maintain the database of presidential political appointments and helped ensure appointee’s paperwork was properly processed. He, too, started as an intern in January 2016 before being hired on as a permanent staffer in May.
Both men said they were inspired by Obama and relished their work for the administration.
“I have been interested marginally in politics growing up, I did ASB when I was at SDA,” said Oltersdorf, who was the elected student body secretary while in high school. “I voted for Obama and I liked the policies that he was working on, and as an economics major I was excited about his opinion and perspective on trade and deals being made with other countries, and I was really excited when I got an opportunity to be a part of that.”
Oltersdorf graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in December 2013.
Sztraicher said that the outgoing president espoused and lived by the values that he grew up with.
“The most genuine answer I can give you is that he really lived up to the motto of ‘Respect, empower, include,’” Sztraicher said. “He empowered everyday citizens to speak up for what they believed in, and gave opportunity for everyone in our society and included everyone, it’s just such a positive message.
“I got to go to work every day knowing that I was working for someone who I believed in and was proud to be working for,” Sztraicher continued. “He gave a voice to the voiceless and that just deeply resonated with me.”
Sztraicher said one of his most memorable moments of working in the administration was the appointment of Eric Fanning to the post of Secretary of the Army, the first openly gay secretary of any military branch.
“As high level as people may think our jobs are, I was a very low level person, but whenever you get a chance to interact with something that is seemingly leagues above you, even in the smallest way, it is just an incredible feeling,” he said. “He (Fanning) is a powerhouse of a guy, and just to say that I had a tiny, small impact on that part of history is just one of the things I am going to remember.”
Oltersdorf can see that experience and perhaps raise it a bit: he got to meet the Obamas, including hugging the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
“He took 25 of us into the Rose Garden and talked to us about the importance of trade and thanked us for all the work we had done,” Oltersdorf said. “And I got to hug Michelle Obama, which was awesome.”
As awesome as the experience has been, Oltersdorf said, he admits that he was profoundly disappointed with the results of the most recent election. A Trump election all but guarantees that much of the work he was engaged with will disappear.
“It seems that Trump’s opinion disagrees with Obama’s on quite a few issues regarding trade, and to have it go up in smoke right after the election was really disappointing,” he said. “I think everyone in Washington felt the same way.”
“I expected a lot of what I was working on to go away, because that is the nature of working with presidential personnel; political appointees come and go with each administration,” he said. “So as far as my work, I expected changeover no matter the result of the election. I am more fortunate in that sense versus someone working on trade, like Max, the election totally changed the outcome of his work.”
But Sztraicher said that the emotions of the election and the end of his time at the White House did hit him recently, after leaving work for the final time.
“After it was over, I wasn’t crying or wailing outside of the building, but later that evening, I broke down,” he said. “I can’t believe that it is over, and obviously it had an effect on me bringing out that emotion.
“There is no denying my disappointment in the results of the election, but I am leaving this job knowing I did the best job I could, and hopefully that plays some small impact, and I pray that my works can continue in some form and the next team does a good job, but I just don’t know.”
Both Sztraicher and Oltersdorf said they will remain in Washington, D.C. for the time being, but Oltersdorf hinted that a political career closer to home might be in the works.
“This is the time when people need to resist what is going on at the national level more than ever, so I wouldn’t feel good about leaving,” Oltersdorf said. “Longer term, however, I want to come back and be involved with San Diego and Encinitas’ political scene and try to do what is right to make sure that San Diego and Encinitas are appreciated for the gems that they are.”