It was a quiet Friday morning at the White House complex.
Construction crews were hard at work outside, trying their best to keep the 223-year old building close to technological relevance.
The president, Joe Biden, was out west, creating a new national monument. His political opponents were making sure he wouldn’t be able to bask in that accomplishment. By day’s end, the president’s son would be the target of a special counsel’s investigation, the equivalent of an election-season burr on the presidential butt.
Before that prickly calamity, Steve Benjamin was already on the job for the president. In his upstairs White House office - just up a floor from the one occupied by Vice President Kamala Harris - he was finishing up one call and was getting ready to handle another.
Oh, you don’t know Steve Benjamin?
He is the indispensable brother in the Biden Administration, the man you need to know if you need to know.
He describes his role as the “front door” of the administration. But a more apt description is that he is the front door, the side door, the back door and the Black door.
Got a problem with what the president did, what he said? Wondered why he backed what he backed? Call Steve, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Chances are, you’ve got his number - or you know someone who does.
That’s because Benjamin, 53, was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a position he won after first becoming mayor of Columbia, S.C., an office he won three times before moving on to what he thought would be an enjoyable time as a retired politician and private attorney.
Mayors don’t have the privilege of political pontificating. If a pothole has to be filled, they make sure it’s filled. If a housing project needs a federal funding kick, they go get it.
It’s a rubber-meets-the-road kind of gig, and mayors of all political stripes bitch and bond over it.
No one understood that better than Benjamin.
When the 2020 election rolled into South Carolina, Benjamin didn’t endorse Biden. He endorsed a fellow mayor, New York’s Michael Bloomberg.
But Biden won the South Carolina primary, the Democratic Party presidential nomination and, of course, the presidency. As he filled out his executive staff, the president didn’t hold grudges.
He had his chief of staff, Jeff Zients, reach out to Benjamin.
Benjamin’s wife, then-South Carolina Circuit Court Judge DeAndrea Gist Benjamin, listened in to the call.
“Usually, I can hide some things from my wife,” Benjamin said, laughing. “Around 7 o’clock in the morning, I got a call from Jeff Zients, the president’s chief of staff. It was early because he was in South Africa. It was much later for him. She had a chance to listen to the entire conversation and she’s like, ‘Are you serious?’ But she was intrigued, as I was, about the possibility of serving.”
Benjamin decided that what he had planned - an enjoyable and perhaps lucrative return to private law - couldn’t match the allure of getting back into the policy ring.
“When the president calls you to serve, you serve,” Benjamin said. “The opportunity to serve the American people at scale, to be in the room when decisions are made…this really appeared to be a great opportunity to make a big difference at a time when it matters most.”
(Judge Benjamin would also get her own call from the Biden Administration, which nominated her for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, part of a wave of Black women put on the federal bench by the Biden Administration.)
Benjamin said he quickly got a sense of what working in the Biden Administration would be about.
“When I sat with the president and he told me I was taking the job, I assumed that he wanted some people to sell the successes of the administration,” he said. “He was very clear to me that this job was more than selling the successes. It was more about listening as well, listening to these diverse and disparate communities that we engage with, business and labor, our civil rights groups, faith leaders, our seniors and our youth, veterans.”
Benjamin said he has “clear and unfettered access” to the president. He meets with senior White House staff regularly, and his office in the building is not far from that of the vice president and president.
“She’s right there, down the stairs from here,” Benjamin said. “And he’s down the hall from her. We interact frequently. It’s not uncommon to be in a meeting just like this and, my assistant knocks on the door and says, ‘The president needs you - now.’ We drop everything, and we go.”
Benjamin isn’t simply taking orders during those meetings. He’s providing insight, a ground-level view a president flying on Air Force One could miss.
“Almost every meeting that we’ve had, he stops and he asks me - I’m usually the only formerly elected official - he says, ‘So, what are the people saying? What are you hearing?’” Benjamin said. “He wants to know what people in communities back home who are working every single day to make ends meet, what they’re hearing, what they’re saying.”
It helps that Benjamin still lives in Columbia and travels regularly between the Palmetto State and Washington, D.C.
“I stay engaged in Columbia,” he said. “We still live in Columbia. I live on American Airlines sometimes. But I try to stay close. It’s our job to keep our ears to the ground and share what the administration is doing.”
If Benjamin’s job was solely as an administration pitchman, he’d be effective. Asked why people in general and Black people in particular should trust Biden, Benjamin dives in.
“He’s been, as he promised to be, a president for all people,” Benjamin said. “In the engagements I’ve had with him, he wants to know what this means to citizens in urban, suburban and rural America, whether they’re in red states or blue cities.”
Equity - fairness - is a guiding principle of the administration, Benjamin said.
“It all goes back to his very first day, when he issued an executive order demanding that equity serve as connective tissue between every single piece of legislation that he’d support and everything that happens at this White House,” he said. “And, as a result, we’ve had a miraculous turnaround in the economy. Record low unemployment. We’ve got significant reductions in the deficit. We’ve watched the economy create over 13 million new jobs now. We’ve seen the lowest unemployment in the African American community in 50 years since we started keeping track. More Black women appointed to the appeals court than any of the other presidents combined. I look at the proof in the pudding. I would tell people to judge Joe Biden on his record as president.”
Benjamin is helping to craft that record.
In the aftermath of the racial murders in Jacksonville, Benjamin listened to community members and shared what he heard with the president.
Earlier, when the Supreme Court was about to bar consideration of race in college and university admissions, Benjamin was among those meeting regularly to craft the administration’s response.
The result is something the administration calls the ‘adversity standard,’ a rubric it believes would allow colleges and universities to consider a range of factors in admissions.
“It allows various factors that are race-neutral that will allow colleges and universities to have a tool to potentially use to make sure that our colleges and universities remain diverse,” Benjamin said. “There’s power in that, power in bringing those diverse ideas into civil society and into our boardrooms.”
Benjamin said the administration is advising colleges and universities that, in determining whether to accept an applicant, colleges and universities can still consider “where you grew up, what high school you went to, if you suffered from any form of discrimination. Those are some of the factors.”
There is much more work to do, and Benjamin is just getting started.
“Every day, I just try to approach this job as just a blessing,” he said. “Every single day, I come in here and think about the sacrifices of men and women, not just the ones we know of and celebrate around the March on Washington or around the King holiday or Black History Month, but those unnamed folks whose names will never be in lights and the sacrifices it took to help us get here and have the privilege of serving. I try to lean in to those better angels of our nature and just serve. It’s a blessing.”
Wayne Washington is a South Carolina native and writer based in Florida