President Obama’s Circle of Friends

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
By: RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks

When President Obama came into office in 2009, he had big plans: close Gitmo, strengthen the economy, cut unemployment, make friends with the Muslim world, make peace in the Middle East, and bring about the day when “the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal…”

Many of those plans, including the ones about making friends with the Muslim world and bringing peace to the Mideast, failed miserably in Obama’s first term. His second term is looking pretty tough, too. So like many an embattled president, Obama has called his old-time friends to the White House, to circle the wagons and advise him at the highest levels of government.

There are half a dozen old friends of the President who became Cabinet members, were nominated to a Cabinet post, or were chosen to be a top advisor in his second term. Some of these names were too controversial to put forward for Senate confirmation before, but here they are today, to reassure the President that his early ideas were the right ones and to “have his back” in the policy fights to come as he tries to flesh out his administration’s legacy. The record of each one’s relationships with Pres. Obama and especially his or her record on Israel and Middle East issues raise serious concerns.

Robert Malley
Robert Malley is reportedly a frontrunner for the post of deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and special advisor on Syria. Malley went to Harvard Law School with Barack Obama. He served in the Clinton administration and was a member of Clinton’s Mideast policy team during the Camp David talks in 2000. Malley blamed Israel for the lack of success of those talks. Later he acted, in the Obama presidential campaign’s words, as an informal advisor to candidate Obama. The campaign severed ties with Malley in May 2008 after the British Times newspaper reported that Malley had met directly with representatives of Hamas, a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Malley has long advocated for bringing Hamas into the Mideast peace process. Malley served on J Street’s Advisory Council.

Samantha Power
Samantha Power has written and worked extensively on human rights and genocide, which brought her to the attention of then-Senator Barack Obama. She was a senior advisor to Obama’s presidential campaign until March 2008, when she resigned in the backlash to having called Hillary Clinton “a monster” in a public interview. She joined Obama’s State Department transition team and became a special assistant to the President on the National Security Council regarding human rights. She was the first head of the President’s Atrocities Prevention Board, which was silent on the violence in Syria and in South Sudan, and other conflicts. She has made several controversial anti-Israel remarks in the past. She was nominated to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, replacing Susan Rice in that post.

Susan Rice
Susan Rice served on the National Security Council under President Clinton and later went to the Brookings Institution. She was a senior policy advisor to presidential candidate Obama and was on his transition advisory board. President Obama restored the position of ambassador to the United Nations to a Cabinet level post when he chose her for that job in 2008. Rice was a controversial ambassador who was criticized for missing important U.N. sessions. In an official statement explaining the U.S. veto on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, she said, “Our opposition to the resolution before this Council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity… Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.” Rice famously lied on the Sunday morning talk shows about the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. She became the symbol for the administration’s evasions and lies about what happened that night. In the subsequent uproar, she withdrew her name from consideration for Secretary of State. President Obama has now named her national security advisor, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel and Barack Obama became friends as members of the U.S. Senate. As a veteran Senator, Hagel advised freshman Senator Obama on various issues. He served as an advisor to presidential candidate Obama. After retiring from his Senate seat in 2008, Hagel entered academia. Pres. Obama nominated him to be Secretary of Defense in January 2013. Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran caused the RJC and several other major groups to protest his nomination in the strongest terms. Hagel reportedly called the State Department “an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office” and said, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up [in Congress].” Hagel opposed sanctions against Iran and called for direct negotiations with the Iranian regime. He has also advocated for direct talks with Hamas and Hezbollah in the past. All but four Senate Republicans opposed his Defense nomination, but it was approved with unanimous Democrat backing in February.

Michael Froman
Michael Froman went to Harvard Law School with Barack Obama and was on the law review with him. He advised then-Senator Obama on economic policy and was central in helping presidential candidate Obama develop his economic team. Froman served as national security advisor for economic affairs. He was nominated to be U.S. Trade Representative in May 2013 and was confirmed in June.

Penny Pritzker
Penny Pritkzer is an old Chicago hand, part of a very influential family known for having owned the Hyatt hotel chain, the TransUnion credit bureau, and the Royal Caribbean cruise line, among other prominent holdings. Pritzker chaired the national finance committee for the Obama campaign in 2008. Thanks to her business connections and strong support for Obama, she raised the millions of dollars that helped get him elected President. She was considered a top choice for Secretary of Commerce in 2009, but was involved at that time in the breakup of Pritzker family-owned Superior Bank, in the subprime home mortgage meltdown. It was thought too controversial to put forward the owner of a large failed bank as a possible commerce secretary. She remained in the finance world until President Obama tapped her for commerce secretary in May 2013. She was confirmed on June 25.

In a second term, Presidents feel they have “more flexibility” to do what they want, whether the voters would approve or not. In this instance, President Obama has nominated some people who were too hot to nominate in 2009, but whose ideas and past statements are no longer a political issue. Some of those ideas – like Robert Malley’s take on the peace process, Susan Rice’s thoughts on Israeli policies, and Chuck Hagel’s views on Iran – raise particular concern about the trajectory of Obama administration policies in the next three years.