With second term assured, Obama aides eye jobs as lobbyists on K Street

With President Obama's reelection a done deal, headhunters are expecting worn-out administration aides to look for new jobs in the influence industry. 

Several Obama aides started making post-election plans well before November, holding discussions with executive search firms in Washington as early as this past spring. Their stock has risen since Obama’s victory, but they face a tough job market on K Street, where belt-tightening has become the norm.

Several headhunters for law and lobby firms said one thing that won’t work against the job seekers is Obama’s executive order on ethics, which bans former officials from lobbying the administration while he is in office.

“That hasn't come up once,” Eric Vautour of Russell Reynolds Associates said of the ethics order. “They can still direct those activities. If you're asking someone to go run a whole department, they can go ask someone to make a call. It's not that big a deal. Clients recognize that as well.”

While some lobbyists said the lobbying ban could diminish administration officials’ value on K Street, others said it has not been a major factor in assessing recruits from the administration. 

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“I don't think the president's stance on ethics and government hinders these people coming out of the administration,” said Rich Gold, head of the public policy group at Holland & Knight. “The fact they can't lobby their former colleagues is not a determinative factor when we are looking to hire somebody.”  

A number of high-ranking Obama administration officials have made the leap to the private sector since Election Day. Alan Hoffman, Vice President Biden’s deputy chief of staff, is joining PepsiCo as its new senior vice president of global public policy and government affairs.

Hoffman is not expected to register as a lobbyist.

“With responsibility for managing issues in approximately 200 countries, PepsiCo does not anticipate that Alan will trigger the federal lobbyist registration requirements,” said Peter Land, a spokesman for PepsiCo.

Dora Hughes, a counselor to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is joining Sidley Austin as a senior policy adviser, while Joanna Martin, a special assistant to President Obama for presidential personnel, has joined Korn/Ferry International as a principal.

More are expected to follow. Several administration officials put out feelers with headhunters earlier this year and asked to be kept in mind for jobs after the election.

“You didn't want to get caught with your pants down on Nov. 6,” said Chris Jones, managing partner at CapitolWorks.

Senior aides from the Obama administration are likely to make substantially more on K Street than they did in government. 

Annual salaries for former Obama cabinet members could start at $1 million, depending on their prominence at law and lobby firms, according to headhunters’ estimates. Former assistants to the president would make more than $500,000 for their starting annual salary, while ex-special assistants would make more than $300,000.

But K Street’s checkbook isn’t unlimited. Former administration officials will have to compete with ex-lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides for a limited number of positions.

“They can't afford to hire people based on an association to a president. They need to see that you have a business plan. They need to make sure that this individual can add to the bottom line,” Jones said. 

A select few in the administration’s elite can be sure of future employment in Washington, while lower-level aides will have a tougher road. 

“If you have got some star power, you are always guaranteed to get a job,” said Larry Latourette, executive director of the partner practice at Lateral Link. “That said, there is a lot less runway allowed so you have got to come out and prove what your worth is. It's just an indication of where the market is.” 

Lobbyists said they also see more value in congressional aides than in administration officials.

Capitol Hill staffers “have larger networks. Those networks are much more accessible and they’re more current,” said Gerry Cassidy, chairman and CEO of Cassidy & Associates.

Others said the friction between the administration and the lobbying world could work against Obama aides.  

“If they are looking to move to Washington advocacy roles, many of the jobs are for representing companies and trade associations that feel that they have been treated unfairly by this administration,” Vautour said. “It doesn't have anything to do with retribution and payback. This strictly has to do with policy terms. Why would you hire someone in an advocacy position who advocated against you?”

Former Obama officials might also be wary of having to register as lobbyists, for fear of taking themselves out of the running for future administration jobs.

“A few people have said they don't want to register as a lobbyist because they want to maintain the option of serving again in the administration,” said Julian Ha, who leads the government affairs practice at Heidrick & Struggles.

Despite the tough competition, administration officials are in a much better position than they would have been had Mitt Romney won the White House. A Republican takeover would have saturated the job market with former Obama officials scrambling to find new employment. Their worth would have plummeted as well with Obama leaving Washington. 

“Their value has gone up. It's a great Christmas present for everyone in the administration,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at McCormick Group. “It's always better to be in power than out of power in Washington.”