On her last day at the White House, Melody Barnes finished packing up what was left of the mementos she’d gathered over the past three years. She tucked away the little thank you cards, trinkets and notes from school children and well-wishers.
And finally, she took one last lap around the place, from the West Wing to the East Wing, recalling all of the excitement of the early days of President Barack Obama’s first term, the rough patches along the way and the difficult decisions that had been made. Her colleagues, with whom she’d grown especially close, hugged and kissed her goodbye.
"It was really a mixture of feelings," Barnes, who served as Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser until late last year, told The Huffington Post. "On the one hand, I am excited about this next phase of my personal and professional life. On the other hand, the last three years in the White House were just the opportunity of a lifetime."
For the first time in her adult life, Barnes would escape the political bubble she’d grown so accustomed to. Before joining the administration, she’d been an executive at the Center for American Progress, chief counsel for the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a lobbyist for women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union and the director of legislative affairs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Barnes, who is 47, has said her true start in politics came at age 8, "when I sold cupcakes for [George] McGovern.")
These days, yoga classes have replaced the early morning meetings at the White House. She’s learned to juggle coffee and lunch with friends instead of juggling national crises. And she’s even been able to enjoy dinners and date nights with her husband, Marland Buckner Jr., who she married only six months into the president’s first term.
"For someone who is used to going 200 miles per hour, learning how to slow down a little is its own challenge," Barnes said. "But I’m exercising more frequently, I’m taking really long walks and doing yoga and meditating again. Just spending a lot of time with friends and family."
In 2008, Barnes was one of several savvy, intelligent and powerful African-American women who were appointed to key positions in the Obama administration. She joined the likes of Valerie Jarrett, Mona Sutphen, Susan Rice and Cassandra Butts, among others.
More recently, though, she’s joined a different group: high profile members of the president’s team who departed before the end of what could be described as a roller coaster of a first term, with extreme highs, major dips and rises. Former White House chief of staff William Daley, himself a replacement for now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, stepped down in January. Obama's popular, gregarious "body man" and assistant, Reggie Love, whom the president described as his "little brother," left at year's end to attend Wharton Business School. Policy adviser Dana Singiser and press secretary Robert Gibbs preceded them.
“I will always be grateful that a woman of Melody’s brilliance, creativity and heart led our domestic policy team during such a challenging time for our nation,” President Obama said in a statement last October, when it was announced that Barnes would leave her position at the end of the year.
In another statement released around the same time, Barnes said, "I've reached the conclusion that I need to move out of a 24/7 work schedule and on to the next phase of my life."
Sutphen, who served as Obama’s deputy chief of staff from the beginning of his term to early last year, called Barnes, whom she has known since the 1990s, "one of the most impressive people ... [with] this mix of intellect and incredible strength and brilliance."
"But she’s also poised and at ease," Sutphen said. "She’s got a great sense of humor, a mix of personality traits that you don’t often see."
Sutphen added that she understood all too well the pressure that comes from working alongside a sitting president.
"We all would go through all kinds of things, everyone in the White House has up days and down days. You learn to take the victories and savor them," she said, adding that adjusting to life after the White House can take some time.
"I'd say the hardest thing is to really work the stress out. It takes a lot longer to decompress from it and initially it can be hard to separate yourself and not wake up in the middle of the night to check your Blackberry," Sutphen said. "You realize how much pent-up stress has been building up inside. But suddenly. as you get back to sleep and get back to yourself, your head gets clearer."
When Barnes took the job in the White House, the nation was experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Some 750,000 jobs a month were disappearing. Unemployment was soaring, and it was particularly bad in the black community, where the rate was well into the double digits. The foreclosure crisis was in full swing, and the United States was knee-deep in costly, bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there were still victories, Barnes said, amid the drag of economic woes and political battles with Republican opposition bent on undermining the president’s agenda.
Those included the president's massive health care reform legislation, which finally passed after a fierce battle in Congress, a $4 billion government initiative billed to spur innovation in kindergarten through 12th grade education, legislation that will help to ease the financial burdens of college students and First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to curb childhood obesity.
“I remember walking with the president and Rahm Emanuel on the way to that first health care meeting, and as we walked I could see the Washington Monument through the window of the Oval Office. And I was thinking how historic it all was and how lucky I was and how fortunate.”
Barnes grew up in Richmond, Virginia, with parents who to this day are her proudest supporters. They watched the election of Obama, the nation's first black president, and they were proud. But they viewed it as a "moment of pride and history" for their daughter to be tapped to work so closely with him, she said.
On a recent afternoon, Barnes recalled that last day at the White House, packing up the last of her things. She said she stumbled over items she’s carried with her from job to job, office to office. "To pack up those things,” she said, “and to think about my career over the last two decades ... all of the transitioning is just amazing."
But in that moment, amid the mix of emotion and nostalgia, she knew it was time to go, to move on. Barnes called the feeling "something that creeps up over time."
"You have to stop and look around and think, on the personal side, about your family. I got married six months after I stepped into the White House. That’s a lot to ask of a new spouse," Barnes said. "At a certain point you have to stop and say, when is enough, enough. I also look at my parents, who are doing really well, but as they get older I didn’t want to look back and have any regrets."
Barnes said her plans for the future are coming together, one step at a time. She hopes to continue to do work that she cares about, except in the private sector.
Until those plans come to fruition though, she said she’d be content with enjoying a long-awaited vacation, yoga, date nights, and uninterrupted morning coffee.