From the Ohio State Oval to Barack Obama’s Oval Office, Brian Mosteller ’99 has cultivated quiet, confident optimism.
It’s early morning in the Oval Office of the White House, seven years and nine months into an administration marked by firsts, and Brian Mosteller ’99 is, every day now, acutely aware of the lasts. The election is only three weeks away. At this point, the only certainty as to its outcome is that this will be a workplace radically transformed come January — a new seated president, a new country. Today, the second-term president whose office this still is, Barack Obama, and the First Lady will host Matteo Renzi, prime minister of Italy, and his wife, Agnese Landini, for the administration’s 14th and final official state visit.
Mosteller, special assistant to the president, betrays not a flash of anxiety, even though the arrival ceremony starts in about half an hour, a grand production gathering 4,500 people, complete with all branches of the military and a fife-and-drums corps, on the South Lawn. Mosteller will be the one to put the remarks on the podium for the president (“Today is bittersweet for Michelle and I…”).
Putting the remarks on the podium is, in the largest sense, his uniquely vital and valued role in the Obama White House: Mosteller often is the first line of connection between what’s in the president’s head and how to make it happen, as smoothly as possible, in the real world. In the West Wing, he is the first person the president makes eye contact with when he looks up from his desk.
“I see him more than I see anyone else in my life,” Mosteller says of Obama, though you immediately sense this Buckeye is possessed of a rare modesty, a sense of priority and integrity that makes it clear his proximity to the leader of the free world is anything but a boast. “That’s my role in this machine, to allow things to work,” he says. “Making the president’s job easier, the vice president’s job easier. I don’t need attention.”
Indeed, you cannot spend time with Mosteller without appreciating the deep truth behind the No Drama Obama nickname for his boss that came out of the 2008 campaign. And you cannot spend time in Washington, D.C., with the president in the Oval Office without passing by the-man-behind-the-no-scenes who studied on an Oval in Columbus, Ohio.
“The pillows will be all smushed again soon,” Mosteller says, glancing at the couch with the familiarity of a natural host. “They do a deep cleaning before a state visit.” He smiles before leaving the president’s office — the pillows in their finest international-head-of-state form for the last time. He points to the box of Italian wines, the official gift for the president from Prime Minister Renzi, and walks past his desk to the Cabinet Room, stopping to open and close the door. “I can’t tell you how many times this door has broken.” He looks into the empty room, the empty table. Mosteller is White House proud. He makes you wish that everyone could land in a workplace, with coworkers, to respect and admire in this way.
He makes you wish that you, too, could figure out the secret to keeping, as Mosteller does, fewer than 25 emails in your inbox at all times. “We’re kind of like the customer service side of the government,” he says in a celebratory way. There’s an old-fashioned pride in a job well done, rather than a job well publicized or shared on social media.
“Isn’t the light beautiful?” he asks, meaning it so much that you don’t dare break the silence to answer, even in agreement. There’s a quality of soft, bright sunshine that is the exception in late October. “Sometimes the light hits it just right.” More silence. Mosteller can’t look away. Then he does, announcing, “I have a lot to do,” seeming both excited and calmed by the prospect.
A quick study
Tell Mosteller that it was hot in the Rose Garden for the last Obama-plus-head-of-state press conference and his first thought will center not on himself: “The president’s from Hawaii, he can take it.” His is a reflexive response, a combination of intentional anonymity and curiosity, an attentiveness to what — and who — is going on around him.
Mosteller made a point to feed a range of interests at Ohio State, researching shipbuilding and music licensing on his own time, studying everything from international business to psychology, plate tectonics to plants. He clearly appreciates that every day is different in his current “dream job.” (The self-described “second-best job” he ever had: waiting tables for two-and-a-half years at Figlio, not far from campus.)
“This isn’t a job in politics at all,” he says. “I liken us to a startup in a lot of ways. We’re very agile. We have the ability to quickly move anything around. I love that. I’ve always loved the immediacy, the problem solving, the global aspect.”
These are passions in Mosteller, 41, that were recognizable in the Akron, Ohio-born student who started at Ohio State as a sophomore, captivated by the “offerings in absolutely everything.” You can imagine how compelling his enthusiasm must have been in leading tours for prospective students, which he did as a senior. Ohio State is a university, he says, “with the resources and the size to allow anything to happen,” to ensure you can, as he did, “pursue what you love, no matter how obscure.”
What Mosteller knew he loved was travel, anything with an international perspective. This led him to apply for and earn an internship at a London P.R. firm and then, in the spring of 1998, one at the White House. That went so well that he immediately joined the advance team for President and First Lady Clinton. From there, he says, “I just kept traveling, nonstop,” including to Switzerland, where he “took his final” and finished his degree work from abroad. Both of Mosteller’s older brothers are Ohio State alumni: Jim, the oldest, earned his undergraduate degree in 1999, and Greg his undergrad and medical degrees in 1992 and 1999, respectively.
After Brian Mosteller graduated summa cum laude from Fisher College of Business and served in the Clinton administration, he moved to Salt Lake City to work on the 2002 Olympic Games. He then spent five years with subsequent winter and summer Olympics in Asia, Australia and Europe, coordinating vast and vastly complicated international events of a scale that may explain his calm about a state visit that is at least limited to the boundaries of the White House lawn.
On Feb. 11, 2007 — the day after a charismatic 45-year-old freshman senator from Illinois gave his famous “hope and change” speech on the steps of the capitol in Springfield — Mosteller met the presidential candidate. It was a Sunday, and Obama’s team had contacted him about planning the next campaign event. From that first impression, Mosteller describes the leader who would go on to enact many firsts for the country as being “as kind and personable as they come. He was friendly, easygoing. Everyone who got involved in his campaign was in it for the right reasons.”
The two have been working and often traveling together, including to Columbus, ever since. “Brian has been by my side for nearly a decade, not only as a dedicated public servant, but also as a friend,” Obama says. “Nearly every day of my administration, Brian has worked behind the scenes to keep the White House trains — and me — running on time. He’s a tireless manager and leader with a knack for sweating the small stuff. I’m lucky to have Brian as a trusted confidant and friend and grateful to have him on my team.”
Mosteller did not attend his Ohio State graduation in 1999, but he made up for it in 2013, when Obama gave the spring commencement speech. (His opening remarks, whether or not Mosteller put them on the podium, were: “Hello, Buckeyes! O-H!”)
Sitting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House today, Mosteller says, “It was a nice moment to fly in and out [of Columbus] on Air Force One.” Then a moment of boyish enthusiasm sets in. “I have a buckeye in my top drawer from south campus. Want to see it?”
It’s telling that Mosteller — with a buckeye in his West Wing desk, just feet from where the president works — describes his favorite aspects of Ohio State and what he will miss about the White House in nearly identical terms.
On being a student: “If you’re given four years to not have to have a career, and have at your disposal experts at so many things, what could be better? Geography class was the first that I loved, and it wasn’t related to business at all. I took these great psych classes. There was this amazing botany professor [Bill Jensen, dean of the former College of Biological Sciences] who would dress up as plant cells and that kind of thing, up there in costume. You get a true liberal arts education. You get to explore.” He also raves about the company of his fellow students, “some fascinating individuals.”
On his current job and how he will feel come January 21: “I’ll miss being exposed on a regular basis to strange, diverse experts. Weekly, daily, we have experts in here, from someone on a leaky oil well to consumer financial protection. You’re on the floor of the stock exchange or with middle schoolers in Dearborn, Michigan. Life’s too short to be stuck doing the same thing every day.”
In other words, not to be experiencing firsts and lasts, or to be stuck wearing the same tattoo. Mosteller wears a different temporary tattoo every day on his right forearm. Today it is a winking heart. It’s pretty much Mosteller in logo form. He’s sincere and very serious about his job, but never too serious about himself. The same applies to his colleagues, he says. “We hope we all know we’re wrong more than once a week and admit it. There’s no point in being anything but open. In being ethical, moral, polite.” Mosteller makes you realize that polite is not a word emphasized enough in global politics. He is not one bit jaded, and his enthusiasm comes through when talking about everyone from the First Dog (“Bo was a puppy, the sweetest ever. You should meet Bo. He’s the most polite dog there is”) to the vice president (“I adore that man”).
Joe Biden, in fact, stood for one of the great firsts of this administration — marriage equality. Mosteller is half of that dashing couple, the other half being Joe Mahshie, whom Biden in his private residence pronounced husband and husband on August 1, 2016. The wedding day tattoos were “Mr.” and “Mr.”
Mahshie and Mosteller met over the Fourth of July weekend in 2014, when Mahshie was visiting Washington, where he now works as the trip coordinator for Michelle Obama. Less than a year later, on June 26, 2015, the two stood together — a workplace romance in a workplace of international precedence — as the White House was lit in rainbow colors to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
“It was nice,” Mosteller says with thoughtful understatement. “It was cool. It’s not traditional to go stand on the front drive of the White House on a Friday night. But everyone just gathered there. As the sun set, it was the first time to see the lights.”
Sometimes the light hits just right. For the firsts, and for whatever comes next.
The day of the final state visit, that Tuesday back in October, Mosteller used the same word to describe this period of lasts as the president did at the podium: “bittersweet.”
Within his general spirit of optimism, Mosteller was most mournful about saying goodbye to the people. “It’s a very respectable establishment, where a lot of really brilliant, dedicated people work really hard every day. The guy who paints the house, the president.” He looked around and said, “It’s strange that someone else takes this all over. When everything is fresh and new, it’s very confusing.”
Of course, exactly three weeks later, Election Day delivered its very own set of firsts and lasts — of unknowns, of questions surrounding legacy and futures. It was impossible not to think back to Mosteller wondering at how “much more resilient” the job had made him, and his saying, “I don’t know what does upset me now.”
Asked in October about the debate season and the prospect of a president very unlike his current boss, for whom he’d managed the 2008 and 2012 general debates, he said, “I’m trying to think if I’ve ever had a cynical side — to this or any other experience in my life.”
The man with the winking-heart tattoo, who kept pointing out the beauty of the flowers and “18 acres of national park” outside the White House, looked into the late-afternoon light and said: “The idea of hope and change is ridiculed widely. But it has been almost accomplished here. To be able to do that again would be a dream.”