by Peter Shroeder
Call it “Obama Inc.”
The presidency of Barack Obama has catapulted a network of former advisers into lucrative positions.
Members of the president’s brain trust have steadily moved outside the administration in recent years, capitalizing on their association with the Obama brand to launch careers as advisers, consultants and hired guns.
“You see people not only serving as representatives of a lobbying firm but taking these very high-profile corporate jobs. I think that is becoming more common,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. “Businesses understand that this is a great opportunity for them.”
David Plouffe, the mastermind behind the president’s two campaigns, became the latest Obama insider to make a move this week by taking a job with Uber, the up-and-coming ride-sharing app that is battling local governments and taxicab companies over its business model.
Plouffe’s task at the ride-sharing company — now estimated to be worth around $17 billion — is familiar: finding a way to woo the public and win on the political battlefield.
“We needed someone who understood politics but who also had the strategic horsepower to reinvent how a campaign should be run,” said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
Plouffe is not the only Obama veteran who could be making a splash at a tech company this year.
Reports have indicated that Jay Carney, who stepped down as White House press secretary in May, is in the running for the top communications job at Apple.
If Carney makes such a move, he’ll be following the trail that was blazed by other officials during Obama’s first term.
Former aides Robert Gibbs and Ben Labolt joined forces to establish their own PR firm, the Incite Agency, which emphasizes on its website their history of having “defined and protected the Obama brand.”
Peter Orszag went from being Obama’s top budget wonk at the Office of Management and Budget to a high-ranking executive at Citigroup.
Plouffe’s move and others show it’s good business to work closely with the president, given the slew of opportunities available to a well-connected political pro.
“There’s just a lot more regulation going on,” Zelizer said. “There’s a lot of intersection between the economy and Washington.”
Of course, a drift of advisers from the West Wing to Wall Street is nothing new, as the trend has played out in previous administrations. Private companies also have good reason to covet political insiders, as they bring a valuable skill-set honed during their time in government and on the campaign trail.
But that’s cold comfort to watchdogs and critics, who listened closely as Obama waxed poetic in 2008 about how his administration would upend the status quo in Washington and take on special interests.
“This is the revolving door, and David is cashing in his connections,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “They have essentially bought David Plouffe’s rolodex.”
Holman says Obama deserves credit for signing an executive order on his first day in office that was aimed at slowing down the revolving door. The order barred administration officials who had been lobbyists from working on issues tied to that advocacy work for two years and also barred current officials from ever lobbying the administration.
“Obama’s done a great deal in terms of trying to rein in the revolving door, but the revolving door is still very profitable and very common,” Holman said.
Former Obama officials have not shied away from taking jobs that put them at odds with former allies on the left.
Gibbs’s and Labolt’s firm, for example, has taken on as a client an education organization led by former CNN reporter Campbell Brown that is filing lawsuits nationwide challenging teacher tenure laws. That campaign is drawing fierce pushback from teachers unions, long a reliable donor and ally of Democrats.
Jim Messina, who helmed Obama’s reelection campaign, is now working as a strategist for conservatives in the United Kingdom.
And Plouffe’s work at Uber will place him squarely against taxi cab drivers who are seeking to unionize in order to thwart Uber’s ascent.
Uber is also clashing with insurance companies that want to tighten rules for ride-sharing companies.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said the hiring of Plouffe is an indication that the company won’t be taking a friendly stance toward their union drive.
“Uber X has destroyed the livelihoods of drivers in the president’s hometown of Chicago, and every day, cities and countries are banning their entire operations,” she said. “That corporate instinct won’t be overriden by hiring a liberal to sell their neo-liberal brand.”
Uber declined to comment.