President Obama, accompanied by advisers Anita Dunn David Plouffe, on… (Carolyn Kaster/AP )
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported
that former senior adviser David Axelrod added public consulting to his portfolio after leaving the White House by founding ASGK Public Strategies. Axelrod sold his interest in ASGK and in a related firm, AKPD Media, before joining the White House in January 2009.
The decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline is a political headache for President Obama. But to five of his former aides, it represents a business opportunity.
Four of them — Bill Burton, Stephanie Cutter, Jim Papa and Paul Tewes — work as consultants for opponents of the project, which would carry heavy crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. Another, former White House communications director Anita Dunn, counts the project’s sponsor, TransCanada, among the clients of her communications firm.
Keystone XL is just one of several upcoming administration decisions providing lucrative work for former Obama advisers on issues ranging from gun control to mining to legalized gambling. Just this week, three of Obama’s top former political advisers — Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plouffe — were given five-figure checks to deliver remarks at a forum in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which is in the midst of a campaign to burnish its image in Washington.
Obama came into office promising that his administration would hew to higher standards than his predecessors did. He implemented rules barring former aides from directly lobbying the government for two years and frequently decries the influence of “special interests” in Washington.
But the efforts have done little to slow a tide of groups hiring former top aides as highly paid consultants, speakers and media advisers in an effort to influence the administration — part of a longtime Washington practice in which interest groups seek access to the White House by hiring people who used to work there.
The activities also pose a political challenge for Obama, who will be put in the position of making decisions on Keystone XL and other controversial issues that his former employees have taken sides on.
“Obama’s made a really bold step trying to rein in the revolving door and keep people from cashing in on their executive branch experience, but some people are pushing the envelope and are trying to find ways around that,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
In a statement, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said, “Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington — which we’ve done more than any administration in history.”
“These restrictions are intended to avoid conflicts of interests, but do not and should not prohibit former government officials from expressing their opinions or participating in a public exchange of ideas,” he added.
Those who hire former Obama aides say they hope to capitalize on their connections to the White House. The advocacy group Trout Unlimited, for example, hired Tewes, former White House spokesman Tommy Vietor and former speechwriter Jon Favreau this year to help in their efforts against a proposed gold mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The group wants the Environmental Protection Agency to protect a valuable salmon fishery from the proposed mining operation.
“These are people with access to the administration, and we are working to tell the stories of these real people who are struggling to pursue their way of life, and make sure the president hears this and has a good grasp of what’s at stake,” said Shoren Brown, Trout Unlimited’s Bristol Bay campaign director.
In other recent examples, Bank of America has retained Precision Strategies — which employs Cutter and former chief Treasury Department spokeswoman Jenni R. LeCompte — for general strategic advice.
Messina has set up his own consulting shop, the Messina Group, and has signed up the Caesars Palace casino as a client. Gibbs is also joining forces with former White House spokesman Ben LaBolt to form a “strategic communications” firm.
Several advocacy group officials interviewed for this article said hiring the president’s former aides makes sense for several reasons: They understand how decision-making works in the White House; they have a record of success; and they amount to political celebrities who can attract the attention of journalists and policymakers alike.
“This is their professional experience and skill set, and it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that they are asked to speak and consult within their area of expertise,” said Robert Bauer, a former White House counsel under Obama who vets speaking appearances for Messina and Plouffe.