Obama’s five closest allies

Getty Images

With the announcement of Attorney General Eric Holder’s intention to resign earlier this week, President Obama is losing not just a key political ally, but one of the few personal friends in his inner circle.

The close relationship between the two men was evident for some time, vacationing together on Martha’s Vineyard in the summers and spending down time with each other’s families back in Washington. 

{mosads}At Holder’s farewell ceremony at the White House, Obama said Holder and his wife “have been great friends to Michelle and me for years.”

Holder, tearing up, told Obama that they had “been great colleagues, but the bonds between us are much deeper than that.”

“In good times and in bad, in things personal and in things professional, you have been there for me,” Holder continued. “I’m proud to call you my friend.”

The rare partnership between the two allowed Holder greater latitude to pursue an ambitious civil rights agenda during his nearly six years helming the Justice Department. It also created the occasional headache in the West Wing, where staffers felt Holder had particular sway over — and an exceedingly long leash from — the president.

While it’s unlikely that the next attorney general will replicate that level of personal friendship with the president, Holder isn’t totally unique in the president’s inner circle. Here are five other top Obama administration figures who share both a close personal and professional relationship with the president.

Arne Duncan

The president and his Education Secretary — who, after Holder’s departure, will be one of just two original Cabinet secretaries remaining —  have a history reaching back to Chicago, where Duncan served as the city’s school superintendent.

Duncan was a basketball standout at Harvard, where Obama attended law school, and both had ties to the University of Chicago. Obama’s daughters attended the university’s prep school — which Duncan graduated from — before the president took office, and Duncan’s wife served as athletic director there.

But their friendship was solidified over pickup basketball games, including, most famously, when a team headed by Duncan squared off against one led by Obama on Election Day 2008.

“It’s the one place where he can just hang out, so it’s a really good break for him,” Duncan told USA TODAY.

In June, Obama and Duncan surprised reporters with a quick trip to grab hamburgers in Alexandria, Va.

Susan Rice

Susan Rice’s bluntness has earned her Republican critics in her roles as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and White House national security adviser.

But insiders say that unvarnished style is what brought Rice and Obama, who is described as similarly unpretentious and pointed, close together.

“They share a common vision and a common style,” Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of State, told the New York Times. “Some of it is a generational thing, and some of it is life’s experiences.”

That personal connection was on full display during the controversy over Rice’s comments shortly after the 2012 Benghazi attack. Republicans slammed Rice for tying the attack to controversy over an anti-Islam YouTube video. Obama forcefully defended her, saying lawmakers should “go after me” instead.

“To besmirch her reputation is outrageous,” Obama said.

Penny Pritzker

Although the Commerce Department is a relatively anonymous Cabinet post, Penny Pritzker’s influence in the West Wing should not be underestimated.

Pritzker first met the Obamas in the 1990s when Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson, was coaching her children’s YMCA team. She’s subsequently been among the most vocal and generous backers of the president’s political efforts, and served as the national chairwoman of his 2008 presidential campaign’s finance committee. 

Their relationship has endured through trying times. Labor unions made her the boogeyman of efforts to shame Hyatt hotels — the chain owned by her family — over their treatment of housekeepers because of her relationship with the president. High profile Jewish and business leaders upset with the president’s policies also pointed criticism at her.

But the president rewarded her loyalty with the job as Commerce Secretary, and the ties between the two are only strengthening. Two Pritzker business associates are playing influential roles in the planning of Obama’s presidential library, including Marty Nesbitt, a former vice president of Pritzker Realty Group, who serves as chairman of the Obama Foundation.

Shaun Donovan

OMB Director Shaun Donovan’s connection to the president stretches all the way back to Harvard, where the pair shared mutual friends.

“I first heard the name Barack Obama in 1991 at a dinner with a couple who were among my closest friends,” Donovan said earlier this year. “The night before, the husband had taken over the Harvard Law Review, but was in a grumpy mood. I asked how could that be. And he explained that he was required to address the entire law school immediately after the outgoing head, Barack Obama.”

Their families are close, with Donovan’s’ sons, Milo and Lucas, each just one year younger than the Obama daughters. At one Super Bowl party, Obama opted briefly to play ping pong with the boys over working the room.

The president’s faith in Donovan has been repeatedly demonstrated, first bringing him on as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and then tasking him to lead the federal response to Hurricane Sandy. Earlier this year, he shifted Donovan into a job as his top budget czar.

“When you’re good at your job, people always want you to do even more,” Obama quipped.

Valerie Jarrett

No individual in the Obama Administration is thought to have more influence on or insight into Obama than Jarrett, and that’s a testament to the close personal bond shared between the first family and the senior adviser.

The president first met Jarrett when she worked as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s chief of staff and hired the future first lady for an opening in the mayor’s office. The trio quickly became close friends, and Jarrett helped the pair navigate the tricky world of Chicago politics.

Her role at the White House is sprawling. Jarrett serves as the Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, but also oversees the offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, making her the point person for everyone from business leaders to advocacy groups to state and local officials. She often spends times with the Obamas in the residence, and is thought to be the first and last person Obama discusses policy decisions with.

“She’s someone I trust completely,” Obama once told the New York Times. “She’s family — she combines the closeness of a family member with the savvy and objectivity of a professional businesswoman and public-policy expert. And that’s a rare combination to have.”


This story was updated at 11:32 a.m.

Tags Arne Duncan Barack Obama Penny Pritzker Shaun Donovan Susan Rice Valerie Jarrett

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video