Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Winter 2013
As national deputy communications director for Obama for America, Rachel Racusen ’04 had a hand in making the top news story of fall 2012 as big as it was.
“Each week I helped plan our communications strategies for presidential or vice presidential campaign events, or for publicly responding to Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan,” said Racusen, who was based at campaign headquarters in Chicago. “I helped make sure our whole team was coordinated in all efforts, from the press assistant writing the news release to the staffer booking campaign surrogates on TV and radio.”
It’s a position that demanded refined skill and unwavering reliability in an intense environment with incredible stakes.
“It certainly could be nerve-wracking. There was a lot of pressure and in our increasingly social-media driven, 24-hour news cycle, even a little mistake could become a big one that impacted the race,” said Racusen, who studied political science at Union. “But it was a huge honor and it was always exciting, even if it was never easy.”
“I worked for a candidate I truly believe in, alongside people I really liked and respected,” she added. “If you’re working 18 hours a day in a city you don’t live in, it helps if you really like the team you’re in the trenches with.”
For two years before the Obama campaign, Racusen was FEMA’s director of public affairs. As the agency’s spokesperson, she ran the national press office in Washington D.C. and oversaw national FEMA communications and responses.
“Political crises are one thing, but there’s really nothing that can prepare you for how to deal with a tornado that hits a town without warning, killing hundreds of people,” said Racusen, who headed FEMA’s response to Hurricane Irene and the twisters that devastated Joplin, Missouri in 2011. “It was an incredible experience. I learned both how to feed the media in a crisis and how to best communicate with disaster survivors who need potentially life-saving information at a moment’s notice.”
She also honed many of her skills on Capitol Hill. In 2006, she was press assistant to the House Education and Labor Committee. Over the next few years, she worked her way up to communications director.
“The committee I worked for helped pass and enact some of President Obama’s greatest accomplishments, from the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to the education reforms passed as part of the Recovery Act,” Racusen said. “I have amazing memories from this time—like standing on the floor of the House when we passed the President’s health care law, and seeing members of Congress hug each other.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Nor has she forgotten Union’s role in preparing her for professional success.
“Union is where I realized I was fascinated with politics and the role media plays within it. It was Professor Zoe Oxley’s media and politics class that really sparked my interest,” Racusen recalled. “I was lucky to have teachers like her, and Professor Byron Nichols, who were great mentors and really cared about their students.”
“I was also very involved on campus and juggled many different commitments, so I think I can probably attribute any ability I have to multi-task to Union,” she added. “The support and experiences I had really started me down this path.”
And it’s a path she’s happy to be on.
“It’s gratifying to know you’ve played a very small role in helping improve our country or in changing people’s lives,” Racusen said. “I’ve helped tell the story, through the media, of what a candidate or policy will mean for Americans and why they should help shape it or get involved.
“The best part is learning when something I worked on benefited someone. These issues are real, they affect us all, and it’s an honor to get to play a small role in hopefully making a difference.”