WASHINGTON — The diplomatic double whammy of back-to-back visits by Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping is creating some pressure-filled days for Deesha Dyer, five months into her tenure as White House social secretary.
No wonder a scented candle is among the half-dozen "must-have" items she keeps in her small office.
"It provides a calm, peaceful atmosphere, which is important in this job," Dyer said.
Dyer has worked at the White House since 2009, starting as an intern and rising to deputy social secretary before Obama and his wife, Michelle, moved her into the top job in April. The Philadelphia native has overseen the planning and execution of scores of events since then, though none as important politically or on as grand a scale as the Francis and Xi visits.
On Wednesday, Francis will become just the third pope to visit the White House, one stop on his first U.S. trip.
Xi arrives two days later on a lavish state visit, putting Obama in the awkward position of toasting the head of a country he blames for certain unacceptable practices, including cyberattacks against U.S. government and corporate computer systems. China is the only country whose leader Obama has invited for a repeat state visit.
That fact alone has Dyer and her six-person team searching for answers to a basic question: How to make next Friday's dinner better than the one in 2011, for then-President Hu Jintao?
Lea Berman, who held the social secretary job for a couple of years under President George W. Bush, said the upcoming week would test anyone, with five months or five years of experience. She said the 37-year-old Dyer, one of the youngest social secretaries in recent memory, has an important factor working in her favor: the confidence of the president and first lady.
"She knows what the expectations are," Berman said. "She's been there for years and knows how things work."
Desiree Rogers, the Obamas' first social secretary, said having one day between such big visits could create logistical challenges for the relatively small White House staff.
"The flip side to that is you're in a groove, so you just keep going," said Rogers, who left the White House a few months after the Obamas' first state dinner for India in November 2009.
Dyer and her team are finalizing checklists for separate South Lawn arrival ceremonies and Oval Office meetings, along with a black-tie state dinner for the Chinese leader that will be attended by hundreds of guests at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $500,000. White House chefs will handle the menu.
Some Republican presidential candidates have called on Obama to cancel or downgrade Xi's red-carpet visit, citing China's "frenemy" status. White House spokesman Josh Earnest has defended the invitation, saying Obama believes engaging with China is an effective way to advance U.S. interests around the world, citing climate change and policy toward Iran as examples.
Rogers noted that Dyer is overseeing the visits while continuing to plan daily White House events, including Obama's recent meetings with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, and an East Room ceremony where Obama awarded national medals for contributions to the arts and humanities.
Once the pope and China's president are en route to their next stops, Dyer's focus will shift to New York and events the Obamas host there in conjunction with the annual U.N. General Assembly. Mrs. Obama typically welcomes the spouses of many of the foreign leaders to a gathering held in the New York City area.
Dyer came to the White House in 2009 as a 31-year-old unpaid intern, and at one point traveled with the Obamas to manage their lodging and logistics. She joined the social office about two years ago and immediately impressed Mrs. Obama with "her passion, creativity, public-mindedness and relentless competence," the first lady said when she and the president announced Dyer's appointment.
Dyer now earns $118,000 annually after succeeding Jeremy Bernard, the first male social secretary. Bernard held the job for more than four years and departed after an April state dinner.
Before starting in government, Dyer was an assistant at a Pennsylvania real estate investment trust and a freelance journalist covering East Coast hip-hop culture. She also worked with young adults, created a Philadelphia-based hip-hop AIDS program and was an advocacy volunteer for the CARE humanitarian organization, the White House said.
She returned to school at age 29 and earned a degree from the Community College of Philadelphia.
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