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.
Treasury went to Jack Lew, a popular White House adviser and a wizard with budget numbers, but whose knowledge of financial markets is weak except for a brief, distant stint at Citigroup; Commerce is likely to go to Penny Pritzker, a Chicago heiress to the Hyatt Hotels fortune and former investor who was a big fundraiser for Obama in 2008 – a year in which she withdrew her name for Commerce because, tellingly, she might have been too rich to win popular support. She has been a businesswoman, but that pales besides her qualifications as a longtime Obama loyalist.
In fact, there are very few executives who last long enough in the White House sphere to become Obama loyalists. Dimon was popular with the president in 2009, but they fell out shortly after. Obama's top Wall Street ally and fundraiser, former UBS executive Robert Wolf, left his job at the bank amid grumbles that he was spending too much time on politics; he did not land in the Obama administration but instead started his own Wall Street advisory firm.
In 2011, GE's Immelt was chosen to run the president's council on jobs and competitiveness, a group of 27 business leaders that also included Burns and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. They were gathered partly to come up with solutions to the unemployment crisis (spoiler: that didn't work) and partly to show that the president is business-friendly.
The council on jobs didn't last very long. The administration announced that the group had outlived its two-year charter and and would expire.
It's not that the president isn't still talking with business leaders. He has arranged calls with them on immigration, and notably reached out for their support to avoid the fiscal cliff last winter. (Spoiler: that didn't work either, although it didn't hurt).
It's not that the president doesn't speak to business leaders; it's that he clearly doesn't want them to have any influence in his administration. Obama's relationship with stewards of capital has always been rocky.
This is not likely to hurt him politically; he has won re-election with a surplus of small donors, and his open glee is palpable now that he doesn't have to kowtow, even briefly, to men and women with deep wallets. Nor does he want to take on the problems of many of the companies that are run by corporate leaders. It seems natural he would want to avoid a national conversation on a cabinet member's unpatriotic use of offshore tax havens, charging unlawful fees to consumers or trading debacles. The national agenda has moved beyond business, to traditional issues of policy.
The Godfather once advised to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. As President Obama fills out his cabinet, however, he has defied that advice, and seems content to keep corporate executives at a safe arm's length from his administration. So when you hear the names of those secret executive friends floated again in the media, just don't believe they'll actually end up in Washington.
The following story, "No, White Friend — You Weren't 'Embarrassed' by Barack Obama," was originally published on JohnPavlovitz.com.
I remember the day after the Election, a friend of mine who happens to be white, remarked on social media that he "finally wasn't embarrassed of America and our President."
I sprained my eyes rolling them and they have never fully recovered.
Since then I've heard this sentiment echoed by more white folks than I can count, especially in recent months; supposed relief at once again having a leader who instills pride.
Since I don't have the time to ask each of the individually, I'll ask here:
So, you were embarrassed for the past 8 years, huh?
What exactly were you embarrassed by?
Were you embarrassed by his lone and enduring twenty-five year marriage to a strong woman he's never ceased to publicly praise, respect, or cherish?
Were you embarrassed by the way he lovingly and sweetly parented and protected his daughters?
Were you embarrassed by his Columbia University degree in Political Science or his graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School?
Maybe you were embarrassed by his white American and Black Kenyan parents, or the diversity he was raised in as normal?
Were you embarrassed by his eloquence, his quick wit, his easy humor, his seeming comfort meeting with both world leaders and street cleaners; by his bright smile or his sense of empathy or his steadiness — perhaps by his lack of personal scandals or verbal gaffes or impulsive tirades?
No. Of course you weren't.
Honestly, I don't believe you were ever embarrassed. That word implies an association that brings ridicule, one that makes you ashamed by association, and if that's something you claim to have experienced over the past eight years by having Barack Obama representing you in the world — I'm going to suggest you rethink your word choice.
You weren't "embarrassed" by Barack Obama.
You were threatened by him.
You were offended by him.
You were challenged by him.
You were enraged by him.
But I don't believe it had anything to do with his resume or his experience or his character or his conduct in office — because you seem fully proud right now to be associated with a three-time married, serial adulterer and confessed predator; a man whose election and business dealings and relationships are riddled with controversy and malfeasance. You're perfectly fine being represented by a bullying, obnoxious, genitalia-grabbing, Tweet-ranting, Prime Minister-shoving charlatan who's managed to offend all our allies in a few short months. And you're okay with him putting on religious faith like a rented, dusty, ill-fitting tuxedo and immediately tossing it in the garbage when he's finished with it.
None of that you're embarrassed of? I wonder how that works.
Actually, I'm afraid I have an idea. I hope I'm wrong.
Listen, you're perfectly within your rights to have disagreed with Barack Obama's policies or to have taken issue with his tactics. No one's claiming he was a flawless politician or a perfect human being. But somehow I don't think that's what we're talking about here. I think the thing President Obama did that really upset you, white friend — was having a complexion that was far darker than you were ever comfortable with. I think the President we have now feels much better.
Because objectively speaking, if what's happening in our country right now doesn't cause you great shame and doesn't induce the continual meeting of your palm to your face — I don't believe embarrassment is ever something you struggle with.
No, if you claimed to be "embarrassed" by Barack Obama but you're not embarrassed by Donald Trump — I'm going to strongly suggest it was largely a pigmentation issue.
And as an American and a Christian committed to diversity and equality and to the liberty at the heart of this nation — that, embarrasses me.
Image Source: Getty / Alex Wong