Friday, March 8, 2013

President Obama and His Secret Executive Friends

By Heidi Moore

In one memorable episode of The Wonder Years, Kevin found himself struggling with the problem of what to do with his friend Margaret – a quirky oddball whom he found likeable, but whose weird charms were not yet recognized in the harsh social hierarchies of his suburban middle school.

Kevin came up with a brilliant solution that would allow him to retain his social position and stay friends with Margaret. It was "secret friends."

"I like you," Kevin told the bespectacled, pigtailed Margaret. "We could talk to each other – but not at school. Or at my house. Or in front of anybody. But you know, we could still be friends … just no-one would have to know about it. We'd be secret friends, OK?"

Margaret turned down the deal. Some CEOs have not been so wise when they've been essentially offered the same relationship by the Obama administration: friendships when they are convenient, but never close enough to be associated with each other, and always at arm's length.

"Secret friends" is essentially the arrangement that the president has kept with several corporate executives. Clearly, the president likes them: they include American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, as well as, on a more fitful basis, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt.

All of these executives have either been vetted or widely rumored for prominent cabinet positions, such as secretary of the treasury or secretary of commerce. Traditionally, these positions are a lock for someone from the corporate world. More often than not, the treasury secretary is someone who has lorded over a boardroom or two: think Textron executive William Miller, who was head of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury under President Carter; former Merrill Lynch CEO Don Regan, who served in Treasury under Ronald Reagan, or Hank Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs.

During the Obama years, the names of these (usually politically liberal) executives have been mentioned frequently as potential cabinet secretaries. Dimon's name has popped up for Treasury since 2009 – and was recently endorsed by Obama favorite Warren Buffett in December - while Chenault and Burns were vetted by White House officials for the Treasury or Commerce spots just two months ago.

But the closeness is always temporary; the gesture lacks follow-through; the vetting always fails. Before the executives even have time to source Washington DC real estate, their names are taken out of the running. The administration rejects being associated with them, in favor of long-serving veterans who are already in the White House cool kids' club.

Read the rest here.

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