By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
They are the Obama-wannabes, many of them young and heady former campaign workers, frantically networking or waiting, just waiting, for the ultimate status symbol in their generation's caste system: a job in the Obama administration.
Flocking to the District's creative-class encampments of Mount Pleasant, the U Street corridor and Dupont and Logan circles, people in their 20s and 30s -- those, that is, with a liberal bent -- are prowling progressive Wiki pages and joining Google groups in the hunt for an Obama job. Those already employed elsewhere are secretly uploading their résumés to whitehouse.gov, while others are quitting their jobs to concentrate on the search.
Some are deft anglers: Melody Mathews, 29, a former Obama field worker-turned-Navy contractor, co-hosted a celebratory dinner recently at Old Ebbitt Grill that included top Army brass with whom she campaigned. Her hope is that they will get presidential appointments and, in turn, hire her. Others, such as Noland Chambliss, 25, a former Obama deputy field director, are in come-down mode. He applied for a position in the Energy Department but hasn't heard anything for months. So he has applied for a job at a pizza shop near his shared house off U Street NW.
"It was a pretty big drop-off, going from every moment of your day being filled with extraordinary purpose and intensity, every moment of your waking hours is bent aggressively toward this goal," Chambliss said. "And then there's a large chasm of uncertainty for you."
The job-seekers range from think-tank types to lawyers seeking better hours or a more altruistic mission. Many were low-paid field directors and their nomadic minions who knocked on doors, organized voters and coordinated multimedia promotions for the Obama campaign.
Their collective purgatory highlights the unintended consequences of Obama's influential calls for service. He has cultivated a yen for public service among this generation, but government jobs are limited, and the tight economy is squeezing nonprofit and charitable organizations and their donors. At the same time, the White House has an unprecedented number of applications and résumés to cull, lengthening the process.
Caught in that vise, Chambliss hopes his dream job will materialize, if only because -- thanks to his mortgage-less and childless life -- he can be patient. "If you sit around looking at the phone, it's not healthy," he said. "The ball is very much in their court. What's this president say about the dignity of work? If you're busy, it doesn't matter how long the process takes."
The Obama administration, contending with the nation's economy and two wars, must sift through "hundreds of thousands" of applications for more than 3,000 political or non-career slots, White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said in a brief e-mail. White House officials did not return follow-up calls. Previous administrations had far fewer applications than Obama's, according to Clay Johnson, a former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
Of those jobs, young people typically gun for the roughly 1,500 Schedule C slots, ranging from administrative assistants to directors of small programs, offering salaries of $30,000 to $130,000, Johnson said. (Others are flooding Usajobs.com, seeking civil service jobs.)
Johnson said filling the Schedule C jobs should be completed by the end of summer. He recalled that young former campaign workers seeking to join the Bush administration were given serious looks.
"They are the ones who are most known to the White House. You have to be aware of somebody and know what they're capable of doing," he said.
At the Department of Education, spokesman John McGrath said only a small number of young people have been hired, because higher-ranking slots have yet to be filled.
"Those senior people will want to be involved in the hiring decisions" for the lower jobs, McGrath said. "Most of the young people hired so far are people either from the campaign or Capitol Hill. We're giving special attention to people who have an education background -- we've had a lot from Teach for America."
Long waits for a new administration are not unusual, especially when the weak economy is spewing out many jobless, more experienced and older people. But the volume of administration applications, along with controversial appointments and withdrawals, has protracted the wait for jobs whose titles -- special assistant or confidential assistant -- can stud a résumé in ways that "campaign field director" might not.
Mathews, the Navy contractor, really wants to be a special assistant to a senior-ranking official, and she might pull it off: Working for the Obama campaign in West Virginia as a volunteer, she arranged meetings between local veterans groups and Army generals and other high-ranking officials supportive of Obama. After the election, she started networking. She used Evite to organize the dinner at Old Ebbitt Grill.
"The dinner was a good opportunity for all of us young people to say, 'Hey, don't forget us,' and just have fun," she said. "We took some time to thank everyone. . . . I went around the room; they all introduced themselves.
"I've e-mailed and chatted and had lunch with them, but none of them have been offered a position yet -- it's disappointing," she said. "I've been sitting tight. Maybe one of them will give me a call. They all need staffers. I just had lunch with a female general who was in Clinton's administration."
Kristen Psaki, 24, a former new media director for the Obama campaign, has applied for positions at the Treasury, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development departments but hasn't gotten any offers. Her sister, Jennifer Psaki, is well ensconced in the White House press office -- she was even featured in a recent Vanity Fair magazine spread -- but Kristen is hesitant to leverage the family connection.
"She knows that [working with the press] is not what I am looking for," the younger Psaki said. "I would rather work for something on my own."
She has gotten a nibble from HUD. "I worked for the field director of Florida, and she's the one who gave my name to the people at HUD to contact me," she said. "But it's a slower process than I realized, and that becomes more difficult when you are forced to pay your car off. I have money saved up, but I had to dip into my savings."
Recently Psaki and her roommate, Chambliss, sat in the kitchen of their rowhouse discussing their mutual plight of joblessness and "catastrophic health care" costs of about $80 a month.
Wearing flip-flops, jeans and a flannel shirt, Chambliss was downing some coffee and a bagel, awaiting an afternoon meeting with a former campaign staffer and Ultimate Frisbee. Psaki was dressed and ready for a day volunteering at a homeless shelter, where she is launching a program to train homeless people in such "green" jobs as refurbishing computers.
They were divided on whether their campaign experiences would net them jobs.
"I would say [campaigning] is only a marginally relevant skill set," Chambliss said. "That's why we put so much faith in the personnel department of the administration to find out if we're an appropriate fit. You just keep your expectations low. . . . It's a decision you make when you come to D.C."
Psaki was hopeful. "It's a little different" for her, she said. "New media is now a marketable skill."