Obama staffers at the portrait unveiling: Where are they now?
There was something of a family reunion vibe at the White House last Wednesday. A couple hundred guests gathered to witness the unveiling of the official White House portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. The guests included dozens of former Obama administration staff, many returning to the White House for the first time in years.
We got to wondering, what are they up to now? After combing through reports and footage of the event, we’ve assembled a partial guest list of Obama-era staffers who attended the ceremony and their post-government career trajectories. Their transitions run the gamut, of course, from laudable to fairly maddening career moves; naturally, what they tend to have in common is a pay raise.
Given our focus on the deleterious effects of the revolving door between government and industry, we’ll devote a majority of this newsletter to highlighting corporatist career trajectories, where relevant government experience propelled these staffers into lucrative private industry careers.
The Especially Ignominious
We might as well begin with former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was a two-term Mayor of Chicago after leaving the White House, and is now Biden’s Ambassador to Japan. Emanuel’s biography is full of more shameless narcissism, bullying, and stupidity than we have time to go into here, but two incidents should always accompany his name in print: he covered up the police murder of a 17-year-old boy to help his mayoral re-election campaign, and he helped bully an economic historian during the Obama transition out of recommending a stimulus big enough to prevent the Great Recession. After his second term as Chicago’s mayor, Emanuel joined boutique investment bank Centerview, where former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was an adviser. He brought to the position, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “a Rolodex built over a 30-year political career.”
Politico’s coverage of Emanuel’s improbable (hint: he likes blabbing to reporters) political resilience back in January included a quick review of “The Sudden But Well-Deserved Fall of Rahm Emanuel” in the New Yorker back in 2015 and The Intercept’s 2019 “Definitive Guide for Cable Hosts, Bookers, and Editors to the Fraud and Failure That Was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.” Our Max Moran also tore into Emanuel for The American Prospect in June 2020, and for the Independent Media Institute in 2021.
Another name we don’t miss in the executive branch is former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013. He is now the president of Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm managing $85 billion in global assets in fossil energy companies, real estate and more. Geithner infamously betrayed Obama’s transition promises to help homeowners drowning in mortgage debt during the financial crisis, and instead “foam[ed] the runway” for Wall Street to survive the crash by evicting millions of people. In August, one of Warburg Pincus’ portfolio companies, Mariner Finance, was accused of predatory lending by five states and the District of Columbia. Mariner Finance allegedly tricked low-income borrowers into costly debt refinancing and tacked-on insurance policies, and the case specifically claims that the company’s illegal predations were “motivated by the high-growth demands of its owner.”
The Military-Industrial Complex
Unsurprisingly, a number of Obama-era officials in the defense and national security apparatus left their government appointments for prominent positions in the warmongering intelligentsia. Let’s start with James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, who CNN spotted “catching up over coffee at the Peet’s Coffee across the street from the White House ahead of the portrait unveiling” with John Brennan, former director of the CIA.
The two men still have a lot in common: both are now national security analysts for cable news networks, with James Clapper at CNN and John Brennan at NBC News and MSNBC. That’s not all — they’re also both affiliated these days with defense contractor-funded think tanks. Clapper is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the “hawkish liberal think tank” which has played a major role in shaping centrist military interventionism over the past two decades. We collaborated with our CEPR colleague Brett Heinz on a thorough report on CNAS’ conflicts of interest last February.
CNAS’ top donors are Northrop Grumman and the Department of Defense, both of whom gave over $500,000 to the organization between fall 2020 and fall 2021. Most other major defense contractors, including Cisco, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, number among CNAS’ top donors as well, along with other pillars of corporate ethical degeneracy like BP, ExxonMobil, Cargill and Amazon.
As for Brennan, he’s a consultant at the secretive international consulting firm Kissinger Associates, Inc., founded 40 years ago by the now 99-year-old war criminal Henry Kissinger, who remains its chairman. Proximity to Kissinger suits him well; political scientist Micah Zenko calls Brennan “the most lethal bureaucrat of all time, or at least since Henry Kissinger, who would pick up the phone and implore military commanders to bomb grids in northern Vietnam.”
David Axelrod, incidentally, effusively interviewed Kissinger for his podcast the Axe Files a few weeks ago. This was after Kissinger, a longtime friend of Vladimir Putin, got flak in May for suggesting that Ukraine should cede some land to Russia. (That’s metaphoric flak, of course; he’s certainly not on the frontlines.) Axelrod, a former senior advisor to Obama, attended the portrait unveiling last week as well.
Leon Panetta, another of Obama’s former CIA Directors, was also in the room last Wednesday. Panetta, who left the CIA in 2011 to be Secretary of Defense through 2013, was hardly clean of corporate connections before his Obama administration tenure. His post-Clinton administration, pre-Obama record included sitting on the board of BP during its prime years of climate denialism and the board of directors of the fraudulent for-profit Corinthian Colleges, whose beleaguered graduates just secured an $8.5 billion student loan discharge this summer.
Shortly after leaving the Obama administration, Panetta joined the board of defense industry public relations firm Fleishman Hillard and took a role as senior counsel to defense contractor consultant group Beacon Global Strategies. These days, he’s chairman of his titular institute, The Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, which had during his time in government a “general policy of not accepting donations from defense contractors,” but “made an exception for Lockheed Martin because it has contributed financially to the institute for several years.” Yes, really.
Shelly O’Neill Stoneman, who was Leon Panetta’s special assistant and White House liaison while he was Defense Secretary, also attended the portrait unveiling. The very same month that she left the Defense Department, she joined major defense contractor BAE Systems as the Vice President of International Government Relations (read: lobbyist). So the revolving door swings.
Also in attendance was Tom Donilon, Obama’s National Security Advisor from 2010 to 2013. Since leaving the Obama administration, Donilon has been involved with a variety of upper-crust foreign policy think tanks, including the Council on Foreign Relations, Aspen Strategy Group, and the Trilateral Commission. And since 2017, he’s been Chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute—BlackRock’s in-house think tank. We’ve noted before that BlackRock is the “bellwether for corporate infiltration of a Democratic administration,” as the world’s largest asset manager. (There’s also David Dayen’s great 2016 piece on BlackRock’s shadow Treasury for the then-anticipated Hillary Clinton administration for background on BlackRock influence in the executive branch.)
Back in 2020, my colleague Max Moran posed this question regarding Donilon’s career trajectory: “Why might a top investment firm hire someone with no apparent prior money-management experience to run a major division?”
…“Perhaps it is the possibility of political influence.”
No portrait of the Obama administration’s revolving door issues would be complete without mention of Eric Holder, who was US Attorney General from 2009 to 2015. Holder was of course in the audience at Wednesday’s portrait unveiling.
Holder left BigLaw firm Covington & Burling to join the Justice Department back in 2009, and returned to the firm when he left the Obama administration in 2015. Covington counted Citigroup, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo among its clients; Holder as Attorney General refused to prosecute the big banks who contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. No wonder he got his job back. (And earned a starring role in Jesse Eisinger’s book on the cravenness of white collar prosecutors, The Chickenshit Club.)
Pete Rouse, who was Counselor to Obama from 2011-2014, was another BigLaw revolver at the portrait unveiling last week. He left the White House for law firm Perkins Coie, which has represented Boeing for over 100 years, and counts other major corporations (and government contractors) including Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google among its clients … as well as plenty of oil companies, who the firm helps dodge climate regulations. As Senior Policy Advisor, Rouse “provides policy analysis and offers strategic advice on navigating Congress and the executive branch”—a paradigmatic revolving door career shift.
Angling for A Raise
Shawn Maher, who was Deputy Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs and Senate Liaison from 2009-2011, left the White House to work as a lobbyist for Royal Bank of Canada and RBC Capital Markets. He is currently Head of U.S. Regulatory and Government Affairs at Royal Bank of Canada—another revolving door title par excellence.
Former White House press secretary from 2014-2017 Josh Earnest is now Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President at United Airlines. While we’re on the subject of monopolistic corporations… check out my colleague Dylan Gyauch-Lewis’s report from earlier this year on “Making The Antitrust Division Competitive.”
Phew! We’re glad that a full guest list for the portrait unveiling wasn’t released, or else this newsletter would have been quite unmanageable. If you still have some appetite left for revolving door commentary, check out the revolver-focused tag on our website. Otherwise, we’ll see you Friday for the third edition of RDP’s new “Hack Watch” newsletter!
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: