On Election Night last year, Alan Hoffman ’88 was doing what most of America and much of the world was doing: watching the election results unfold on television. What’s different about Hoffman’s experience is that he knew if Senator Barack Obama and his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, were to win, the American studies graduate would be at the center of one of the most significant transitions of power in U.S. history.
Having served twice as Biden’s chief of staff — first from 1998-2003, and again from 2006-08 — Hoffman was a natural choice to oversee the vice president-elect’s transition team beginning Nov. 5. Seventy-six days later, on Inauguration Day 2009, Hoffman moved into his new quarters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, right next to the West Wing of the White House, as Biden’s deputy chief of staff. There, he helps run a department of about 120 people.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good,” Hoffman says of his initial opportunity to work for Biden in 1998 as a 32-year-old lawyer. “I had started my government career in ’93 with the Clintons, having worked on their campaign in ’92, and had a series of jobs, including working at the Justice Department, and then later as a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia.”
In 1998, when Attorney General Janet Reno asked Hoffman to return to Washington to head the Justice Department’s legislative affairs office, he sought Biden’s counsel, as the position required Senate approval and the senator sat on the Judiciary Committee.
“I asked him for his assistance in the confirmation process if that were ultimately to happen, and he said, basically, ‘Instead of going back to work for the attorney general, why don’t you come back to work with me as my chief of staff?’” Hoffman explains. “There wasn’t even an interview. I had worked with his son in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and helped build the department. So his son knew me, and I think between the two of them they had concocted this crazy idea that I would go work for then-Senator Biden instead of going to work for Attorney General Reno. So, there really was very little conversation. At which point I said to him — we were driving in the car — I need to think about this!’”
In his current post, Hoffman functions much like a COO, managing the daily workings of Biden’s office. He begins every morning by reading three major newspapers and being briefed about important developments by his staff. Depending on what’s happening, “that sort of dictates what the day is going to be like,” he says. Because the vice president has so many responsibilities — including managing the implementation of the Recovery Act, overseeing developments in Iraq, and chairing the Middle Class Task Force — Hoffman monitors all those areas and provides insight. He also accompanies Biden on almost all of his travels.
“I oversee all of [the vice president’s] political activities, the day-to-day management of what it takes to run the vice president’s office, all of our outreach to Congress, all of our outreach to local and state officials, and all of our outreach to public interest groups and trade associations and basically the general public at large,” he says.
One of his toughest responsibilities may be overseeing Biden’s well-known propensity for gaffes, though Hoffman shrugs it off. “One of the things, I think, that makes Joe Biden real is that he many times says what’s on his mind, and he doesn’t sugarcoat things, and he doesn’t necessarily read the talking points that people give him,” Hoffman says. “He has been in public life for 37 years, and he is a real person, and I think people like that about him.”
Hoffman admits that the hardest part of the job is spending time away from his wife, Lizzie, and his inability to share with her all aspects of his work. “Many times you want to talk about what happened during your day, and there are things that are either politically sensitive or classified or should not be discussed outside the work environment…and so that is a challenge. But fortunately, I have an unbelievably supportive and loving wife who understands these things. And fortunately, she doesn’t have a strong interest in politics.”
The long hours and secrecy haven’t dampened his enthusiasm for public service, and he marvels at what he’s seen while working with Biden for most of the last 11 years.
“Think about it: In the Senate, I was there for an impeachment of a U.S. President,” he says. “I’ve been there for the war in Kosovo, I’ve been there for 9/11, I’ve been there for a presidential election that was decided by the Supreme Court. It has been an unbelievable experience in terms of having a front-row seat on what’s happening on the American and the international stage.”