Robert Wolf: Banking on President Obama

As it turns out, 28 years on Wall Street was enough for Robert Wolf. 

Wolf, who became one of President Obama’s closest allies on Wall Street in recent years, left his perch as a top banker at UBS Americas last summer, and launched his own New York-based consulting firm that he hopes will have a big footprint in Washington. 

It’s a switch that Wolf himself admits was well-timed. 

The career Wall Street man left the high finance world in the heat of a presidential election, as his friend and golf partner in the Oval Office was bashing bankers as “fat cats” and as many of his colleagues in New York were backing the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney. 

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Now Wolf not only gets to use his friendship with the president as a selling point for his new venture — called 32 Advisors — but he is also grabbing talent like Austan Goolsbee from elsewhere in Obama’s orbit.

“There’s no question that having a friendship with the president of the United States has been — I don’t mean to quote the book — has been a game-changer for me and my family,” Wolf told The Hill in a wide-ranging interview in Washington.

Wolf reflected that he was ready for a new challenge after spending his entire professional career at the Swiss-based UBS and the famed investment bank Salomon Brothers. 

“The truth is, I wasn’t loving what I was doing,” said Wolf, who turned 50 last March. “When someone goes into a job at 21 years old, and they turn around and all of a sudden they’re 50 years old, and they’re doing the same job — it’s exciting, but at some point you say, ‘I know there’s other things I can do.’ ” 

While Wolf knows his relationship with Obama — he’s vacationed with the president and served on his jobs council and economic recovery board — could give him a leg up in a landscape already flush with consultants, he also stressed that proximity to the president is far from all that 32 Advisors has to offer. 

“I think when our firm gets hired, they’re hiring Robert Wolf. They’re hiring Austan Goolsbee,” Wolf said. “People will hire 32 Advisors because they see who I am and who I surround myself with.”

In addition to Goolsbee, a former chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Wolf’s new consulting group has brought on Barry Johnson, who served in Obama’s Commerce Department, and Kevin Varney, a veteran of the Export-Import Bank. 

Wolf, who will serve as chief executive of the company, says he hopes 32 Advisors can fill what he sees as gaps in the consulting world, in areas like foreign direct investment and the intersection of public policy and the economy. The goal, Wolf said, is to carve out a niche as the firm that can better link up Wall Street, K Street and Main Street. 

“We don’t want to mimic what the boutique investment banks are doing. It’s not going to be investment banking,” said Wolf, who added that his group would not be registering to lobby. 

“Really, the view is, how can we look at our Rolodex, our value proposition, and make sure we’re doing something that’s a little different for our client?.”

Wolf titled his new consultant shop after his number as a University of Pennsylvania fullback some three decades ago. He still says that being a student-athlete served as a springboard to his career on Wall Street.

A Massachusetts native, Wolf had assumed through much of college that he would be a doctor. But after talking with Wall Street firms, Wolf ditched that idea and told his parents that he was calling an audible. 

“I asked them, what are you looking for?” Wolf said, recounting his Wall Street interviews. “And they said, ‘The perfect candidate for us would be a rocket scientist jock.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s easy. I played college football and I graduated Wharton, so I know I’m at least one of the two.’ ”

More than a quarter-century later, Wolf says part of the attraction to Wall Street was that investment banks — team-oriented, highly competitive places that weren’t short on charisma or testosterone — reminded him of football.

He readily admits, however, that the “high-fiving” days of the 1980s contributed to the problems that Wall Street and the broader economy have had in the years to come. 

But for a “young, naive kid” whose only previous jobs were landscaping and house painting, the world of Wall Street “was amazing.”

“You walk in in a nice suit, feeling great. There’s electricity in the air,” he said. 

That swagger, in part, helped Wolf enter Obama’s inner circle, when the then-Illinois senator was starting up a presidential campaign. 

He first met Obama at a 2006 event hosted by George Soros, the billionaire investor and Democratic money man. 

Obama and Wolf later met for dinner, and Wolf said they found they had much in common — they were roughly the same age, had two children each and an Ivy League pedigree, among other things.  

Wolf soon informed Obama that he’d be in his corner in his race for the White House — no easy decision, given that Obama was lagging in the polls at the time and was facing off against one of Wolf’s home-state senators, Hillary Clinton.

Wolf said he eventually hosted Obama’s first New York fundraiser, and accompanied the candidate to speeches in New York where the senator chided Wall Street in their own backyard.

Wolf warned Obama about excessive leverage on Wall Street and, perhaps most famously, fed Obama inside information about high-level industry meetings being held on the 2008 fiscal crisis. 

Wolf acknowledged, however, that four years later his friendship with Obama and status as a prodigious fundraiser were causing some “bumpy roads.” In appearances on television, Wolf said he would be identified as both a UBS executive and as an outside adviser to the president. 

“There is no question that when you are viewed as the Wall Street adviser to the president during a campaign, when half the country is not supportive of the president, and those who were supportive didn’t love Wall Street, it puts that person who’s that Wall Street adviser in a very precarious position,” he said.

News reports last year said UBS had eventually told Wolf that it had to approve all media requests. 

Wolf, nonetheless, emphasized that his departure from UBS was amicable — the firm became the first client for 32 Advisors.

He added that, in general, the back-and-forth during the campaign became overheated. 

“Comments like ‘fat cat’: I like to say I’ve been called worse things at home,” he added. “Honestly, worrying about campaign rhetoric is just, I think, silly.”

Wolf said he continues to walk into rooms a little taller following the president’s reelection in November.

“I don’t think anyone in the country projects that they’re going to be friends with the next president of the United States,” Wolf said. “There’s only been 44 of them. It’s just not something you project.”