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Posted at 12:05 AM ET, 01/24/2011

With Julianna Smoot's departure, Obamas looking for third social secretary in two years

By The Reliable Source

Julianna Smoot, White House social secretary, entering Wednesday's State Dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Julianna Smoot, the savvy political operative who brought stability back to the job of White House Social Secretary, is leaving after 10 months, hundreds of events and two error-free state dinners, including Wednesday's fete for Chinese President Hu Jintao. She's headed to Chicago and the president's 2012 re-election campaign -- a move not entirely unexpected among political insiders: Smoot was a critical fundraiser in 2008 and considered too valuable not to redeploy.

The news Thursday of her departure quickly made headlines, underscoring the high profile of what once was a behind-the-scenes position overseeing all the entertaining and events in the White House, from bill signings to high-stakes formal state dinners.

Will her departure hurt the East Wing? The verdict: Maybe, unless there's a highly effective, Smoot-like replacement ready to take over immediately.

Former social secretaries say it takes at least a year to really master the job -- especially building all the relationships with White House and residence staff. It's rare for one to leave during the first term: Most, like Laurie Firestone (Bush 41), Ann Stock (Clinton) and Cathy Fenton (Bush 43) served the full four years. Although two women -- Lea Berman and Amy Zantzinger -- held the job in Bush's second term, both had extensive backgrounds in political events and A-list entertaining.

The $150,000 job requires political smarts, attention to details, event-planning experience, the ability to work with numerous contituencies inside and out of the White House -- and do it all with tact and grace. "It's a huge balancing act," said a former White House staffer. "When you do it right, nobody notices. When you do it wrong, it's an incident: Desiree Rogers, 101."


Former social secretary Desiree Rogers at the first state dinner in Nov., 2009. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

When Michelle Obama appointed Rogers, the flamboyant businesswomen posed for magazine covers, hobnobbed at New York fashion shows, and proclaimed she would transform the job. And she did, although not in the way she intended: After crashers slipped into her first state dinner, Rogers became a household name for all the wrong reasons, and was forced to resign soon after.

Another factor: The next social secretary has a less-traditional first lady to serve. Laura Bush would tear recipes out of magazines and suggest flower arrangements; Michelle Obama has turned her focus far beyond the role of first hostess and concentrates more on her childhood nutrition initiative.

No frontrunners for the job have emerged yet. Smoot, who declined a request for comment, is expected to stay at the White House for the next couple months to help train her successor before relocating to Chicago.

By The Reliable Source  | January 24, 2011; 12:05 AM ET
Categories:  44: Obama's Washington, Parties, Politics, White House State Dinner  
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Comments

Will the copy editors please wake up? "And she did, although not in the way she attended" -- shouldn't that read intended?

Posted by: sheridaw | January 24, 2011 9:39 AM | Report abuse

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