Kristie Canegallo ’01
Kristie Canegallo ’01 grew up in Springfield, Mass., raised by a single mother who was an elementary school teacher. Her mother taught Canegallo and her brother, Mark, the values of service and hard work. “[She] instilled in us [that] if you work hard and you’re a nice person, good things happen,” Canegallo said. Until recently, Canegallo was working steps away from the Oval Office as assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for implementation at the White House. And when interns asked her how she got to where she is, Canegallo would repeat the principles her mother taught her: “Work hard and don’t be [a jerk],” Canegallo said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Although Canegallo worked behind the scenes, and her name is not well known by the public, admirers of her work extend as high as former President Barack Obama.
“Our veterans are better served, our immigration system is more fair, and millions of Americans have health insurance today due to the tenacious work of Kristie Canegallo,” Obama said in a statement provided by the White House. “If America had a Kristie Canegallo at every important post in government, we would all be infinitely better off. I am extraordinarily grateful that she’s been at my side, solving problems and implementing solutions that give every American a fair shot to pursue their dreams.”
At Colgate, she majored in international relations. “I always knew that I wanted to work in government, to do some form of public service,” Canegallo said. “But I didn’t know how to get my foot in the door coming out of undergrad.”
She worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs for three years, then moved to Washington in 2004 to get a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with a focus on strategic studies.
Canegallo is a Democrat, but her background is not in partisan politics. Rather, she came up through the national security ranks. Her first Washington job was as an unpaid intern for the Department of Defense, where she ultimately landed a paid job. She spent five months working at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan in 2007. The following year, she was embedded with a Marine unit in Iraq’s Anbar Province working on governance issues.
In October 2008, under President George W. Bush, she began working at the National Security Council, where she would stay when Obama took office, until 2012. When Denis McDonough, who had been Obama’s deputy national security adviser, became White House chief of staff, he asked Canegallo to come work for him.
“Everybody who works with her becomes deeply impressed with her,” McDonough said during an interview at the White House. “She has great attention to detail but also can see how particular choices or policies will impact the country or how they’ll be understood in public debate.”
In addition, McDonough said, Canegallo is easy to work with: “She’s just such a good bird and so much fun to be around that she can take the most difficult issues and really create a team spirit and create a sense of cooperation and camaraderie around them.”
Canegallo’s most recent White House job, which she began in May 2014, stemmed from the administration’s difficult rollout of HealthCare.gov, the national platform for buying health insurance established under the Affordable Care Act. The October 2013 rollout was plagued with enormous technical problems, which made it difficult for people to sign up for coverage. Reviews of the project identified failures in leadership and management.
“One of the lessons learned … was that having someone in this building at a senior level who partners with departments and agencies to help them execute and implement some of their complex policy initiatives was needed,” Canegallo said.
That is where she came in, overseeing the implementation of difficult policies, from reforming health care to improving the Department of Veterans Affairs to modernizing government technology. She coordinated different agencies and got them to communicate, making sure projects with multiple components were moving forward, monitoring results, and reporting to the president.
“There is not a more pivotal person to the success of this administration and this White House than Kristie Canegallo,” McDonough said. “And that’s not just my view … that is the [former] president of the United States’ view.”
What’s next for Canegallo?
For now, she is on vacation in Australia. Her plans are “to relax and sleep.”