By Other Means
Want to Work in the White House?
The unofficial guide to getting a job in the Obama administration.
So, you want to be a political appointee in the Obama administration’s second term? With cabinet leadership turning over at State and DOD, half the people I know are wondering how to get their feet in the door. (The other half are wondering if anyone will be willing to pay their salaries when they finally leave their current jobs in the administration). But despite the many eager job candidates, there’s not much honest or useful information available on how to find administration jobs. (For a rare exception — perhaps more honest than useful — see this 2008 piece by an anonymous job seeker, who did, in the end, get a fantastic job.) As one current political appointee puts it, the "selection of the Pope is probably clearer" than the process of getting a political appointment.
My own wisdom on getting political appointee positions falls primarily into the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" category, so I supplemented my insights by asking friends and colleagues what advice they would share with job hunters. A dozen current and former senior officials — from State, DOD, the White House, and a major domestic agency — were generous enough to share their candid thoughts.
So, herewith, the Unofficial Guide to Getting a Job as a Political Appointee.
Tip #1, of course, is "Be a rich donor." Then you can be an ambassador!
You’re not rich? Try harder. Or make rich friends and start asking them for money. Or see Tip #2.
Tip #2: Work your butt off for the campaign.
You know the drill. Someone’s got to run phone-banking in Peoria. This won’t necessarily get you a job, but it will at least help your résumé move up in the pile. (See below.)
Too late for phone-banking? Don’t despair. You can always try…
Tip #3: Be a cabinet secretary’s protégé.
You learned diplomacy at John Kerry’s feet? You’ve been Chuck Hagel’s right-hand man for the last four years? You can stop reading, because you already have a job.
The remaining insights are for the rest of you peons. You know who you are; here’s what you need to know.
The Basics: The Agency-PPO-WHLO Triangle
To begin with, you need to understand the three key institutional actors in the political appointment process.
First, there are the departments and agencies: the State Department, the Treasury Department, USAID, DOD, and so on. The vast majority of political appointee jobs are in the departments and agencies. All those positions are listed in the so-called Plum Book, but the Plum Book just gives job titles, classifications, and names of the most recent people to hold each position. "The Plum Book is like the Rosetta Stone," says a current appointee. "It’s full of useful information, but only if you can crack the code. You need to understand that job titles and grades are almost meaningless."
At any given time, officials in the departments and agencies are trying to hire lots of people both for positions listed in the Plum Book and positions they’re in the process of creating. (Organizational structures and job titles change all the time.) Sometimes they’re trying to hire specific people: A new deputy assistant secretary of state wants to hire his former research assistant as a special assistant, for instance. Other times, they’re just trying to find someone with the right expertise: An assistant administrator at USAID needs an expert on gender issues in Central Asia.
But senior agency officials can’t just hire and fire on their own, because that would be too easy. No — they have to work with the Presidential Personnel Office to get someone brought in as a political appointee. And unless they’re extraordinarily senior (cabinet level or just below, in which case they can just call the head of the Presidential Personnel Office, or the president, for that matter), they generally get to the Presidential Personnel Office through their agency’s White House Liaison.
Second, there’s the White House Liaison Office. Each department and agency has a White House Liaison Office (WHLO) that exists to deal with political appointees and to liaise with the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO). You can usually find out the name of the senior official in each WHLO; they’re generally listed on department and agency websites (depending on the agency, their staff may also be listed).
The White House Liaison is the go-between: Agency officials tell WHLO who they want to hire, or what kind of candidates they’d like to see for an open position, and WHLO communicates this to the Presidential Personnel Office. It goes the other way, too: PPO tells WHLO that it’s trying to place certain people in agency jobs, and WHLO communicates PPO’s preferences to agency officials. WHLO also helps handle the logistics of appointments once top candidates have been identified, shepherding them through the often lengthy and complex process (which can include everything from the need to get a high-level security clearance, to the need to beg for or reclassify SES and Schedule C slots, to, in the case of very senior appointees, getting confirmed).
Finally, there’s the Presidential Personnel Office, also known as "White House Personnel." To outsiders, PPO’s structure is opaque, but former PPO staffers tell me the office is organized into five substantive "clusters": there’s a domestic issues and agencies cluster, for instance, as well as an economic affairs cluster, an energy and environment cluster, a national security agencies cluster, and a cluster for independent boards and commissions. Each cluster is headed by someone with the rank of special assistant to the president, and that person is assisted by one or more directors and one or more staff assistants.
Who are these people, you ask? My sources said they’d have to kill me if I told you, but you can ask around as you network. Alternatively, if you’re a good Googler you can probably track down some names. Look through the (publicly available) salary list for White House personnel, see if you can find people with "presidential personnel" in their titles, then get Googling. Who knows? Some of these folks may have Facebook or LinkedIn profiles; you may even discover that you already have a connection to them.
In addition to the five substantive clusters, PPO has an internal "priority placement" staff. This, at least, is what it used to be called; I’m told it has some opaque new name along the lines of "outreach and engagement." Regardless of the label, this internal office consists of staff charged specifically with taking care of those who "need taking care of." That is: campaign staff, candidates with Hill backing, current or former appointees looking to shift to new positions, people backed by advocacy groups, and so on. Each week, the PPO directors in charge of these "priority" applicants meet with the cluster staff and "pitch" their candidates, trying to match priority candidates with open jobs.
The balance of power between agencies and PPO varies from administration to administration, and can vary within administrations, as well. In the Obama administration, c. 2013, PPO has a lot of power, and even extremely senior officials can find themselves forced to accept candidates selected by the White House for "political" reasons. "As far as I can figure out the only way to get an appointment now (and for the past 2 years or so) is if the very small and very insular National Security Staff team views one as an insider/dependent and NOT from any other networks to whom the appointee might be loyal, responsive, or credible," one former official told me in an email.
A former State Department official agreed: "There is very little appetite for new blood" within the White House right now, "very little — they are much more interested in career folks who know how to take orders — at least on the foreign policy side. And the White House wants its own folks embedded [at State]." For job hunters, that means that "while it’s always good to have someone [in an agency] who wants you on their staff, good White House connections are key."
Learn to make friends and influence people.
For those hoping to get jobs as political appointees, this means you should, ideally, get to know people in all three parts of the Agency-PPO-WHLO triangle. You want the senior people in your favorite agency to be asking for you by name when an appropriate job opens up. You want the staff of that agency’s WHLO to be looking out for you and trying to help you find appropriate jobs, and you want the staff in the PPO to be doing the same thing. If you’re not already a "priority" applicant, that means you need to get out there and start making friends.
"Talk to everyone," recommends one former White House official. "Your colleagues in your field of expertise — and especially those who are serving in your agency of choice — are essential sources of information. Unlike 2008/2009 when the slate was a blank canvas, the hardest thing for aspirants is to find out whether a particular job is likely to be open."
Think about it like this. Back in January 2009, there were some 3000+ open political appointee job slots that did not require Senate confirmation. Most of them got filled within a year, and all but a few hundred remain filled today. Unfortunately for the unconnected, PPO is trying to fill those few hundred open jobs with people the White House "owes" in one way or another. There’s the guy who ran the Peoria phone-banking effort, for instance: He’s now pounding the pavement in DC and he says he really wants to work on energy policy. Then there’s the one-term congresswoman who just lost in a close race: She wants to be a senior White House official. Then there’s the protégé of a former cabinet official, and the favorite staffer of the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They all want jobs — and there aren’t enough jobs to go around.
Meanwhile, PPO is also getting names from officials at the departments and agencies trying to fill key positions — and through the formal application process everyone can access via the White House website, PPO is also receiving thousands of unsolicited resumes. Most of those unsolicited resumes come from people that PPO staff have never heard of.
Guess which resumes are likely to be considered first?
"Sad fact: Sucking up helps get jobs more than credentials or ability do," says a former State Department official. That’s why there are plenty of political appointees out there who — while undoubtedly smart and capable — don’t necessarily have the most relevant background for the work they’re doing. They didn’t have to be the most qualified of all the possible applicants out there — they just had to be the most qualified of the well-connected applicants.
Do not waste time sulking about this. ("I can’t believe they appointed Joe Schmo to be deputy assistant to the deputy assistant for Nagorno Karabakh affairs just because he used to be an intern for Senator Moneybags! That idiot can’t tell the Karabakh from a calabash, whereas I’ve written six policy reports and five scholarly articles on gender issues in Nagorno Karabakh!") It is what it is. Get over it.
This doesn’t mean you have to be super-connected to get a job — really, truly, you don’t have to be rich or famous — but it does, unfortunately, mean that it’s very hard to get a job if you have no connections at all. And it’s virtually impossible to get a political appointment without putting in some significant effort. Unless you’re already prominent and well-connected, no one’s going to seek you out.
In a better world, the president would have read your perceptive analysis of gender issues in the Nagorno Karabakh during some idle moment on Air Force One, and he’d tell his chief of staff, "Locate that brilliant young analyst and offer him a job at once! This administration needs more people of his caliber!" In this world? Dream on.
Don’t despair. Even if you’re young or new to D.C.’s political world, finding "connections" isn’t actually that hard. You probably already know some people who know some people close to the process — start asking around. Ask your boss, your colleagues, your professors, your neighbors, and friends. If that doesn’t work, start attending think tank events in the areas that interest you — anyone can sign up for the public event notification mailing lists at Brookings, the New America Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and so on. Go to events and chat with people; go up to panelists, say something intelligent (and non-pompous please!) about the issue under discussion, and then follow up by email: Ask people who impress you if they’d mind sitting down with you for 10 minutes and giving you some general career advice.
Most Washington experts and bigwigs are busy, but they’re still just regular people. They like feeling appreciated and important, and they generally like to be helpful (they did go into public service, after all). So don’t be shy about asking for a few minutes of their time — the worst that can happen is they’ll be so busy and overwhelmed that they won’t get back to you. If you can meet with them, tell them the kind of job you’re looking for and ask them who else they think you should talk to. Then reach out to those people.
"Dear Bigwig, Expert #1 suggested that I speak to you. I’m hoping to find a job at the State Department, preferably working on Central Asia issues, and Expert #1 thought you might be able to offer some guidance about what positions might be opening up soon. Would you be willing to spend fifteen minutes talking, at your convenience?"
Lather, rinse, repeat.
As you get smarter and more knowledgeable, you can refine your pitch. (Now you’re no longer saying, "I’d like to work on Central Asia policy. Now you’re saying, "I’m an expert on gender issues in the Nagorno Karabakh, and I’d like to be able to help shape U.S. policy in that area. Bigwig #7 told me you know the State Department’s White House Liaison and the deputy to the deputy for Nagorno Karabakh affairs — do you have any suggestions on how I might reach out to them?" If you can identify White House Liaison Office staff and PPO staff by name, reach out directly to them as well.
As one political appointee with both White House and DOD experience put it, "If you want to be a political appointee, you need to ‘get’ politics enough to treat your job search as a political campaign in and of itself. You need to do your homework and reach out to people." Another former official added, "DON’T assume the people you worked with on the campaign will have pointed you out to anyone" — you need to be assertive on your own behalf. A former Senate-confirmed appointee was equally blunt: "Work for your own confirmation: no one else cares."
Be cynical, but not too cynical.
The process is not completely nepotistic. "All the unseemly stereotypes apply, but I don’t think the system is as gameable as this implies," says Kori Schake, who spent several years on the Bush administration’s National Security Staff.
Even the most jaded staffer in the Presidential Personnel Office tries hard not to put ignorant, obnoxious fools into important positions. When a position appears to require particular expertise, PPO staff really do try to find people who possess that expertise — and if they can’t find someone who’s "connected," they’ll search the database of people interested in jobs. It happens, really. So, tempting as it may be to dismiss the formal process as worthless, don’t; instead, make sure you fully and accurately describe your experience and expertise. When someone does a database search for "gender issues" and "Nagorno Karabakh," you want to make sure your application pops up.
One reason positions are at times filled by people without much relevant experience is that the people working in Presidential Personnel are often young and relatively inexperienced themselves. As a result, they may not have a clear sense of what people in particular positions actually need to know and do. This means that you have to help them, by doing your homework. "Be realistic," cautions a former White House senior official. "If you’re not sure what kind of job is appropriate for your level of experience, ask around. Or look at others with similar backgrounds and see where they’re serving." A former State Department official underscored the point: "[You need to] actually know something about the jobs you want, and how you are qualified for them; your competition will."
If you have rock-solid qualifications for a particular job or jobs, and can bring your qualifications to the attention of agency, WHLO, and PPO staff, you stand a pretty decent chance of getting a position sooner or later. "[There’s a] myth is that you must be politically connected and intimately tied to the campaign" to get a job, a DOD political appointee told me. He got his SES-level job because senior Pentagon officials knew his work in a related area and had been impressed; they queried PPO about him, PPO agreed to put him on the slate of candidates, and he was interviewed and hired. He wasn’t even a Democrat — he was just a well-qualified match for a fairly specialized portfolio.
Network…but be patient and don’t bug people.
There’s a fine line between being assertive on your own behalf and being That Guy. "Raw ambition on display is unattractive," says a former State Department senior official. A former White House official seconds the sentiment: "Don’t try too hard. A well-placed, well-timed recommendation or two can be extremely helpful, but it can quickly be overdone. If you have your 10 favorite Senators send letters and your friends calling and emailing everyone they know in the Administration, you will almost certainly annoy the people you want to impress."
Once you’ve made sure people are aware of your interests and your skills, leave them alone. "Lie low," urges a former senior official at a domestic policy agency. "I have no idea how [the appointments process] works, except…slowly."
"Settle down and accept that the process will move in mysterious ways and will take far longer than you imagined," agreed Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department deputy assistant secretary. "Radio silence is neither a good sign or a bad sign, rather it’s simply generally the only sign you get for long stretches… [it] may not signify anything personal."
The political appointments process is opaque — for those stuck on the outside, it can often feel needlessly, cruelly opaque. Even terrific, well-liked, well-connected, highly accomplished people are often left hanging for months or even years. "Dealing with White House PPO is like dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles," commented a former official. "Communication [with PPO] is a one-way street: you to them. Acknowledgement of emails is rare, attempts to check on your status more fruitless than productive….Patience. Unless you are a cabinet nominee or someone who can mobilize the kind of high-level influence that requires them to respond within a few days, keep your powder dry. For days. For weeks. For months. For many many many months…"
A former top White House official agreed: "Don’t try too hard. The easiest way to ruin your chances is to descend on White House personnel with every influential person you know. It can be counterproductive — especially if you’re not even sure if you’ve got a chance at a particular job."
The PPO staff is inundated with requests from all quarters. They can’t possibly make everyone happy. As a result, says a former State Department official, much of the time "they are in the business of saying no. You are just another file to them [and] the paper work is endless." Don’t make their lives harder by badgering them.
Also, keep in mind that the hiring environment changes over the course of each presidential administration. "Getting an appointment today is very different from getting an appointment a year ago, and vastly different from four years ago," explains a former PPO staffer. In January 2009, there were thousands of campaign staffers, donors, and assorted subject-matter experts looking for jobs — but at least there were also thousands of open positions. The process was chaotic: Internal administration power structures hadn’t solidified, and senior officials could take their pick of highly qualified candidates eager to be part of the Obama administration.
By late 2011, that had changed. The A Team — the people brought in early — were exhausted; many had left or were leaving, and PPO was under pressure to quickly fill the positions left vacant by departures. Sometimes, that meant replacing substantive experts with people the White House "owed" but hadn’t previously been able to place; other times, it meant a frantic search through resume databases to find someone able to hit the ground running on Nagorno Karabakh.
Today, many jobs are opening up again: Senate-confirmed officials are mostly turning over, and their personal staffs are also leaving (which means, among other things, that plenty of "special assistant" jobs are opening up). But now, as in 2009, there’s a whole campaign staff looking for their just rewards — and not nearly as many open positions as in 2009. Nevertheless, give it another couple of years, and this will change yet again: PPO will once more be desperately trying to fill positions vacated by burned-out appointees.
Cultivate Zen-like serenity.
At the end of the day, there’s a strong element of randomness and serendipity to the whole process. Did the right job open up at a time when you happen to be available? Did you manage to befriend the right people at the right time? Did you — whoops — annoy the wrong people at the wrong time? (If you did, urges a former Senate-confirmed appointee, "Don’t apologize: once it starts it never ends.")
So don’t overthink it, and don’t structure your whole life around the hope of getting a job. All you can do is let people know you’re out there…and then get back to doing good work in whatever position you’re already in. "Consider what kind of infrastructure…you want the eight Obama years to have created for the country," urges Heather Hurlburt, who worked both at the State Department and the White House during the Clinton administration. "Then get started creating it outside, while you wait to see whether you can work your way inside."
Anyway, maybe you don’t even want that administration job. Plenty of political appointees end up doing little but busywork. "There are way way too many people running around in the WH who think they are important because they have a White House badge," comments a former official. Many of them have little real responsibility and less clout.
Even those who obtain senior positions often end up frustrated. When I asked my sources what they know now that they wish they’d know four years ago, the responses were sobering:
- "[I wish I’d known] that Obama was more talk than action. [And] that Congress was totally dysfunctional and uninterested in making public policy."
- "[This is] not a family-friendly administration; [you] must run everything through the White House; departing from White House talking points/message, even if inadvertently, means being yelled at and your institution being viewed as uncooperative."
- No one’s going to thank you for your hard work. On the contrary: "People who put signs on lawns in Ohio will intone moralistically about whether you’re deserving of ‘serving this president.’"
- Nepotistic hiring leads to "increasingly poor performance, groupthink, lack of knowledge and expertise, and the most pernicious of all government diseases, which is telling the boss what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear. The agencies are becoming demoralized."
- "Given the state of our finances and know-nothing Congress, the next four [years] will probably be less fun than you think."
All that said, I consider the three-and-a-half years I spent in government (first at State during the Clinton administration, then at DOD from 2009 to 2011) among the most rewarding years of my professional career. The pay was poor, the hours were long, and the frustrations were numerous — but I worked with (mostly) great people, learned an immense amount, and was able to take on meaningful, interesting challenges. When I left, I felt like I’d helped make the world a tiny bit better.
So if you’re trying to find an administration job, don’t give up. Just remember: Your mileage may vary.
Do you have additional tips or experiences to share? Send them my way; if I get enough responses I will publish a follow-up blog post.