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From the White House to the Boardroom

The Obama Foundation's new board of directors embodies the neoliberal approach that failed to defeat Trump.

David Plouffe in 2016. TechCrunch / Flickr

Donald Trump’s presidency is finally here, but so is the post-presidency of Barack Obama. Not only is Obama, at only fifty-five, set to have one of the longest post-presidential careers of any president, but now freed from the shackles of the office — which often forced him to temper his true beliefs and triangulate — Obama can become the progressive hero his most fervent supporters always wanted him to be. Or so the theory goes.

Part of Obama’s post-presidential legacy will be the Obama Foundation, established in January 2014 “to carry on the great, unfinished project of renewal and global progress,” as its website tells us. For the last two years, its chief responsibility has been funding and constructing Obama’s presidential library — “a living, working center for citizenship” as Obama puts it. But it will soon turn its focus to “developing the next generation of citizens” and building various programs and nonprofits around the country.

Still in its early days, the foundation’s mission is vague and amorphous, but nonetheless offers some hint of attempting to rebuild the kind of progressive grassroots activity that Obama’s election originally seemed to promise. This, coupled with a public letter in which Obama pledged to “be right there with you every step of the way” in the years to come has given some hope that Obama will play a role in resisting President Trump.

The launch of the foundation’s website five days ago, however, along with the publication of its full volunteer board of directors, raises questions about how effective the foundation will be as a springboard for progressive action, let alone a bulwark against the coalition of resentment Trump has mobilized.

The foundation’s board of directors is a combination of Obama friends and fundraisers, campaign workers and corporate leaders, and the politically connected, often all rolled into one. And many of them have long pushed for the kind of centrist, corporate-friendly policies that helped lead to the party’s loss in the presidential election and decimation at the state level around the country.

Martin Nesbitt

Chairing the Foundation’s board is Martin Nesbitt, the so-called “first friend” and forty-first most powerful person in Chicago according to Chicago magazine, who first met Obama playing pick-up basketball nearly forty years ago. Along with serving as a trustee for various entities and projects, including the board that pushed for Chicago to host the 2016 Olympics, he was also the national treasurer for Obama’s two campaigns and sits on the board of American Airlines.

Nesbitt is currently the co-founder and co-CEO of the Vistria Group, a private equity firm that raised $148 million in 2014 for its debut fund. Ironically, when campaigning in 2012, Obama made Mitt Romney’s stewardship of private equity firm Bain Capital — infamous for stripping companies for short-term profits at the expense of workers — a central election issue, to the point where corporate darling Cory Booker, then an Obama surrogate, aired his displeasure with the attacks.

In February 2016, Vistria joined a consortium with private equity firm Apollo Global Management to buy Apollo Education Group (no relation), which owned the underperforming University of Phoenix, a leading player in for-profit higher education. Sources told Reuters at the time that Apollo Global Management had brought Vistria on in order to “smooth relations with government regulators once a deal is completed,” due to the firm’s links to Obama.

Not only was Nesbitt his best friend, but Vistria’s COO Tony Miller had been the deputy secretary of education under Obama. (The Education Department eventually okayed the deal with a number of stringent conditions).

John Doerr

Doerr is a famed venture capitalist at Silicon Valley investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers who made his name (and fortune) by being one of the first to invest in past and present household names in the tech sector like Google, Amazon, and Netscape. He’s worth $5.2 billion today, and sits on the boards of Google, online game company Zynga (best known for Farmville), and others. Doerr and his wife are also prolific Democratic donors, and Doerr was subsequently appointed to Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness in 2011, one of nineteen donors to make it on the twenty-two-member council.

Doerr has funded and continues to fund a variety of supposedly well-meaning projects, including Bill Gates’s $1 billion venture fund for clean energy. But his name may be most famous for the $16 million gender discrimination lawsuit filed against Kleiner in 2015 by future Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, who claimed she had been passed over for promotion because she was a woman. The trial featured Doerr recounting the various menial tasks and sacrifices his underlings were asked to do and make in order to better “leverage” his time and do the job more efficiently.

Deval Patrick

The former governor of Massachusetts, Patrick is one of the bigger names on the foundation’s board. His 2006 gubernatorial campaign is often spoken of as the spiritual precursor to Obama’s presidential campaign two years later.

Patrick’s record as governor is mixed. He proposed to make community colleges free throughout the state, signed a bill to protect 1.6 million acres of ocean water under the state’s watch, and raised its minimum wage to what was then the highest in the country. But after the financial crisis, Patrick tried easing the state’s budget troubles through painful spending cuts, including cutting health insurance subsidies for immigrants and slashing HIV/AIDS programs by $5 million between 2008 and 2012, while attempting to lure casinos into the state to raise revenues. (Even so, Patrick’s farewell as governor ended up costing $300,000).

More controversial is Patrick’s history in the corporate world. After a vaunted history as a civil rights lawyer, including leading a task force to oversee oil giant Texaco’s employment practices following what was then the biggest racial discrimination case in US history, Patrick took high-paying positions as a lawyer and executive in Texaco and then Coca-Cola, the former of which he was hired for while leading the task force.

Accounts of how he got the Texaco job conflict. He told the Boston Globe in 2006 that Peter Bijur, the head of Texaco, had phoned him and offered him the job — a conversation Patrick had reluctantly, according to this recounting — and that the judge monitoring the case had told him he could do a lot of good in the company, leading him to accept. But at the time, in 1998, Bijur told the Wall Street Journal that he had sought Patrick’s advice for who to hire as general counsel, and it was Patrick who expressed his interest in the position.

Both Texaco and Coke had a number of controversies while Patrick worked for them. Texaco successfully fought the transfer of a suit brought by thirty thousand peasants and native people from Ecuadorian to US courts involving the company’s pollution of the Amazon that left natives exposed to a high risk of cancer. The plaintiffs had wanted it tried in the United States as Ecuador’s judicial system didn’t recognize class-action suits and lacked a history of environmental litigation.

Though Patrick wasn’t involved in the decision, he defended the idea of having the trial in Ecuador on the basis that “that’s where all the people and documents and the sites are.” The lawyer fighting the case said that “thousands of Indians have died because of this, and if you’re going to support this, you have to take another look at yourself.”

Coke was even more plagued by scandals during Patrick’s tenure: the company had a history of causing water shortages in developing countries that produced the beverage; sold drinks contaminated with pesticides in those same countries; was accused of colluding with paramilitary thugs who murdered and intimidated Colombian union organizers; and accused of fraud by a whistleblower who spoke of a “culture of dishonesty.”

Patrick ultimately received millions of dollars in salary and bonuses from the company. He touted the fact that he resigned over Coke’s refusal to allow an independent third-party investigation of its activities in Colombia, but then returned to the company as a consultant in 2005, making $3.5 million. When he ran for governor, Patrick refused to release his tax returns.

In 2004, Patrick also joined the board of the parent company of Ameriquest Mortgage Co., which by 2004 had two massive cases under its belt related to its predatory lending practices. In both cases, the predatory lending disproportionately impacted minorities and women. Similar to Texaco, Patrick had been the one to bring the case against the company nearly a decade prior while at the Justice Department, but now receiving $360,000 a year from the company, he defended it, writing a letter to Congress vouching for Ameriquest’s owner to be appointed ambassador to Netherlands. After Ameriquest settled its more recent case for $325 million in 2006, he was confirmed.

Patrick continued to serve the company’s interests even when he resigned. In 2007, upon becoming governor, he personally phoned former Treasury Secretary and Citigroup executive Robert Rubin to help Ameriquest’s parent company secure financial assistance from the bank. Patrick’s spokesman told the press he had vouched for the “current management and the character of the company.” Ameriquest ended up being one of the key players in the subprime mortgage crisis.

Patrick currently works for — wait for it — Bain Capital.

David Plouffe

David Plouffe was the whiz kid behind Obama’s successful 2008 campaign and later joined the Obama administration as the president’s senior adviser, with a stint as a paid speaker and adviser to various groups and companies like Boeing and General Electric in between. In 2014 he was hired by Uber for the express purpose of working the same magic for Uber’s messaging as he had done for Obama’s campaign.

“There was a political campaign being run against Uber and I had to go get educated on what that meant,” the company’s CEO explained at the time. Speaking with Plouffe, it “really started to make sense we should do something together.” Plouffe was essentially hired to help the company win the many impending regulatory fights popping up around the country and world.

During Plouffe’s tenure, which continues today, the company has come under fire from labor groups and its own employees for its business practices, which include passing as much of the business costs onto the driver as possible, underpaying drivers, and opposing unionization. The company now has an army of 161 lobbyists it uses to fight the various regulatory battles that have sprung up around the country. Meanwhile, in some cities, its drivers work seventy-hour weeks and sleep in parking lots in order to earn enough to get by.

Plouffe is at the forefront of Uber’s efforts to protect its profits. As Seattle prepared to pass an ordinance requiring Uber and businesses like it to negotiate agreements with drivers, Plouffe visited the city in a last-ditch attempt to kill the ordinance, speaking to city officials and delivering a highly publicized speech trumpeting Uber’s benefits to the modern workplace. He called the legislation “puzzling” and said it “could be something that costs the city a lot of money.”

Similarly, in New York, when Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to cap the number of Uber cars, Plouffe lead a successful publicity charge against the proposal, holding a press conference in Harlem with black leaders, where he warned of job losses. In Chicago, Plouffe — who served with Emanuel in the Obama administration — sent the mayor an email warning of impending city council regulations that would impact Uber. Two weeks later, the regulations were no more.

John Rogers

Rogers is the president of investment firm Ariel Investments, which as of 2008 was the largest African-American-owned investment firm in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal. Rogers founded the firm in 1983, when he was just twenty-four, by borrowing money from various contacts he knew through his mother, a deputy solicitor general and delegate to the United Nations under Nixon, as well as a member of the boards of directors of corporations like Mobil Oil and Revlon Group. According to Rogers, he would ask people who “were worth a million dollars or more” to borrow $20,000, eventually raising $400,000 with his partner.

Rogers serves on the boards of McDonald’s, Exelon, and other major corporations. Rogers, who was one of Obama’s major fundraisers in 2008, raising more than $500,000, was picked as the co-chair for Obama’s inaugural committee for 2009. He told the Wall Street Journal in 2008 that he viewed himself as a liaison linking Obama to the investment community.

Rogers’s political beliefs stand out the most from the rest of the board. Rogers, who described himself in a 1989 Chicago Tribune profile as possibly “a lot more conservative than people think I am” and hung an autographed picture of Ronald Reagan on the wall of his firm’s office, started out as a Republican, a political worldview he reportedly inherited from his mother.

In the same profile, he described his backing of George H. W. Bush and expressed his belief that “a Republican economic philosophy ultimately leads to more jobs and a strong tax base, therefore helping blacks.” According to a 2013 Crain’s Chicago Business report, Rogers was a Republican until 1991, when the nomination of Clarence Thomas led him to switch parties.

Despite the change of party affiliation, Rogers has continued to espouse an entrepreneurial, corporate vision of social uplift that wouldn’t be out of place in the GOP. “Entrepreneurship is the answer to eliminating the wealth gap between the social and ethnic classes in this country,” he told the Network Journal in 2012. “More people of color have to research and start their own businesses.”

In 2014, Rogers told Black Enterprise that the single most important issue to the advancement of African Americans in the twenty-first century is expanding black representation in boardrooms, believing the benefits would subsequently filter down to black communities as a whole. “I want to see us engaged as leaders of hedge funds, tech firms and media conglomerates,” he told Minority Business Entrepreneur the same year.

This year, Rogers spent part of $10.5 million to set up the Ariel Investments Internship Program in Finance at the University of Chicago, aimed at helping black youth enter the world of financial services and “meet and connect with all the money managers that manage those assets, the private equity people, the hedge fund people, the venture capital people.” “Our community typically doesn’t get exposed to those career paths,” he said.

Michael Sacks

Sacks is the CEO of GCM Grosvenor, which the Chicago Tribune has called a “hedge fund of funds,” focusing as it does on investing in multiple hedge funds on behalf of large investors like corporations and pension funds. He also serves as the vice chairman for World Business Chicago, an economic development nonprofit in the city.

Sacks and his wife are major Democratic donors, giving $4.5 million to various Illinois campaigns between 2013 and November 2016. According to emails released last year by WikiLeaks, Sacks was a top priority for wooing by the Clinton campaign, given that he was “a top Obama bundler and donor, and also the top raiser for Rahm.”

Sacks’s relationship with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel extends beyond his financial support of the mayor. The two have a close relationship, with Chicago magazine terming Sacks the “Rahm whisperer,” an “unpaid, largely unheralded adviser” to the mayor — so much so, that Sacks was cc’ed on emails from the mayor’s office regarding plans to monitor groups protesting against police violence.

Robert Wolf

Wolf was the CEO of UBS Americas and president of the UBS Global Investment Bank, and is now the founder and CEO of consulting firm 32 Advisors. He was also one of Obama’s key fundraisers and an informal ambassador to Wall Street for the former president during and after his 2008 campaign.

The two men first met at an event held by George Soros in December 2006, after which Obama embarked on a campaign to woo the prodigious Democratic fundraiser. According to one Podesta email from 2015, Wolf “has a super close relationship with Obama. Obama asks his advice on all sorts of economic matters.” The New York Times reported that he regularly advised Obama on Wall Street during the financial crisis.

Wolf, who reportedly made more than $5 million a year while at UBS, was deployed by Obama in 2011 to help shore up the president’s damaged reputation among the financial sector and win back Wall Street donors for the 2012 campaign. He was rewarded with several government posts, such as sitting on the Economic Recovery Advisory Board from 2009 to 2011, the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness (alongside Doerr) from 2011 to 2013, and the Export Council until 2016.

During 2015 and 2016, Wolf, a self-described “huge supporter of TPP,” became an “effective business surrogate” for the Clinton campaign, in the words of John Podesta. Wolf publicly praised Clinton as “the most practical [candidate] during this election season” after the first Democratic debate, defending her decision to reject reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act to break up big banks.

After a Bloomberg reporter asked Wolf why the financial industry was so fond of Clinton, emails show that Wolf affirmed Clinton’s earlier claim that it was due to her work in rebuilding New York after September 11, and pointed to Obama’s Wall Street ties as evidence that one could take money from the financial industry while still being tough on it — talking points he then forwarded to Clinton staffers.

Wolf’s firm, 32 Advisors, at times skates even closer to the kind of impropriety that shadowed Vistria’s involvement in the Apollo Education buyout. The firm, which specializes in connecting its clients to business, financial, and, most importantly, political leaders, has been staffed to the brim with former Obama officials, including former Council of Economic Advisers chairman Austan Goolsbee.

While the company’s website has changed since, in 2013 the New Republic reported that it was replete with photos of Wolf with Obama, at the same time the site offered to put clients in touch with political leaders, something White House officials found “stunning.” In addition, one of the firm’s specialties is advising clients how to secure government financing for exports; a number of the firm’s staff have consequently been former officials with the Export-Import Bank, an entity Wolf regularly defends and is core to his firm’s success. Wolf even sent an email to the Clinton campaign in March 2016, talking the bank up and defending it from Sanders’s charges of crony capitalism.

Other foundation hires include Julianna Smoot, the record-shattering national finance director for the Obama campaign; J. Kevin Poorman, the CEO of private equity firm PSP Capital Partners; and David Simas, who served in a variety of positions in the Obama administration and is now the foundation’s CEO. The only board member to not have a business background is Harlem art curator Thelma Golden.

Yes We Can (Undermine Public Education)

Besides their corporate ties, a number of the foundation’s board members hold some questionable political views. This is most evident in education. A number of board members are scornful of public education and are active supporters of charter schools.

Nesbitt, for instance, serves on the board of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has raised tens of millions of dollars from Chicago’s wealthiest. Large donors regularly have schools named after them — including Illinois’s austerity-focused governor Bruce Rauner, who gave $1 million to the network in 2006.

While Noble has been praised for its results, its work has the inadvertent effect of undermining the city’s public schools. Because CPS allocates school funding on a per-student basis, public schools lose money if students leave for a nearby charter, such as Noble. The schools’ expansion also fits into Rahm Emanuel’s goal to expand charter schools. Emanuel has appeared in a promotional video praising the Noble Network.

Tech venture capitalist John Doerr is also a big charter school backer. Doerr heped bankroll the NewSchools Venture Fund in 1998, which invests millions of dollars in starting and expanding charter schools. Doerr has called public education “a state-run monopoly rife with ‘social promotion’,” meaning that “so long as you don’t make too much trouble, you ride the conveyor belt from grade to grade regardless of how much you learn or whether, indeed, you learn at all.” He recommended testing teachers and starting charter schools as solutions.

Similarly, John Rogers told the Chicago Tribune in 1989 that the city’s schools were “horrendous and distressing” and that he wanted to “tear down a lot of the inner-city schools and construct fewer facilities with more of the attributes of suburban schools, then structure the system to reward good teachers and punish the bad teachers.”

Doomed to Repeat History?

The (mostly) men who are behind the Obama Foundation seem at odds with not just the stated purpose of the foundation, but Obama’s personal narrative of grassroots organizing.

When asked about this discrepancy, the foundation responded:

The Obama Foundation will focus on developing the next generation of citizens — and what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century. More than a library, or a museum, the Obama Presidential Center will be a place that brings people together and inspires individuals and communities to take on big challenges.

The foundation’s mission statement — which claims that “real change — big change — takes many years and requires each generation to embrace the obligations and opportunities that come with the title of Citizen” — suggests that the key to the “renewal and global progress” the foundation strives for is a grassroots organizing campaign by ordinary people. The website’s tribute to Obama’s roots in community organizing seem to back this up.

Yet if its board of directors is anything to go by, the foundation appears headed in the direction of the very kind of soft neoliberalism that has shattered the Democrats and helped Trump ascend to the White House.