News & Politics

What Made Me: Melody Barnes, Former Obama Adviser

President Obama’s former domestic-policy adviser on competitive swimming, her father’s childhood in the South, and turning the big 4-0.

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The failure: I was in middle school and beginning to swim competitively. It was my first race, the breast stroke. I was losing. I remember coming up for a breath and seeing where I was, and I panicked and adjusted what I was doing. When I got out of the pool, my coach looked at me and said, “Don’t change your stroke in the middle of the race—stick to your fundamentals.” That’s something I’ve thought about ever since. You grow, you refine, you adapt, but you don’t abandon the core that makes you strong.

The piece of advice: My dad and I were talking about his growing up in the segregated South. He’s such a strong, proud African-American man. He said, “You know, I understood their rules, but I didn’t internalize them.” The world can pound you with a lot of negative messages, but if you understand who you are, you can navigate your way through the noise and maintain your sense of worth and your humanity. Especially in Washington, you get so many messages—who’s up, who’s down, who’s powerful, who’s not. What’s been critical for me is to know who I am and to remain true to my values.

The turning point: My forties. So many things came together personally and professionally. I fell in love with my husband and married him. I became the person who was ready for that relationship. So many people dread their forties. I say embrace it. 

This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.