When President Obama took office, he promised to change business as usual in Washington. No lobbyists would work in his administration, he declared, but quickly made so many exceptions to the rule that it became irrelevant. And in reality, as Noam Scheiber notes, virtually nothing has changed; the revolving door is still revolving as quickly as ever, especially in the second term.
Welcome to the buckraking phase of the Obama era. If the campaign was about hope, and the early presidency was about change, increasingly the administration has settled into a kind of normalcy in which it accommodates itself to Washington far more than Washington accommodates itself to Obama. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when the result is a bipartisan schmooze-fest at the Jefferson Hotel. But when it comes to the D.C. custom of trading a White House security clearance for a private-sector sinecure, there’s a lot to be said for not going native so easily.
He does say that former Obama officials have generally avoided joining lobbying firms and have opted either for consulting firms or for starting their own ventures.
There are more than enough ways to cash in on a White House tour of duty that fall comfortably within the red lines governing Obama’s Washington. No one in the West Wing, from the president on down, would begrudge former colleagues the chance to make a buck so long as a modicum of tact is displayed.
The easiest place to accomplish this is at a Washington consulting firm that takes on corporate clients. For example, a group of companies might hire a firm like SKDKnickerbocker—a popular destination among young Obama operatives, run by former White House communications director Anita Dunn—to wage a P.R. campaign for certain tax advantages over their competitors. (The New Republic was an SKDKnickerbocker client.) “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s two big rich companies fighting over something, and you pick a side,” says a former administration official now in the consulting world.
Or a client caught in an unfortunate regulatory snag might want to know where to plead its case. “They say, ‘Listen, we have a problem with the White House. We think we should talk to Joe Smith,’ ” says the former official, describing a typical interaction. “I say: ‘That guy is a total moron. He’s not the person to talk to on this issue.’ … It’s giving background advice to people without lobbying.”
But it turns out the highest-profile White House grads don’t so much join consulting firms these days; they found them. A boldfaced Obama name can rake in upward of $25,000 per month from a client just by dialing into a conference call and drafting a memo from time to time. Four clients means more than a million dollars a year with virtually no overhead. “You can run a business like that on an iPad and a cell phone,” says the former administration official.
The alternative is to rent out office space and staff up, in hopes of one day growing into a consulting powerhouse. This is the Glover Park Group model, based on the firm a group of former Clinton and Gore hands opened in 2001 and nurtured into a 160-person juggernaut. Jim Messina appears to have ambitions in this vein, having procured office space and hired support staff. Former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who briefly flirted with trying to return to the White House, is in the process of launching a similar firm with Ben LaBolt, the 2012 campaign press secretary.
None of this is really Obama’s fault, of course. This is just the way Washington has worked for decades and will continue to work, probably forever.