Wanted: A Job in the Obama Administration

Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009; 1:30 PM

Washington Post staff writer Ian Shapira was online Wednesday, April 8, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss his story about people in their 20s and 30s seeking public service jobs in the Obama administration.


Ian Shapira: Welcome everyone! Warning: I do not have the personal cell phone numbers of every chief of staff and deputy chief off staff in town, so if you've come to upload your resume with me, well, you got the wrong guy! Today, we wrote a story about what it's like to be in limbo-land, and some very smart young people emerged in the article to talk frankly about how they are trying to land a job in the Obama Administration. Kristen Psaki, Noland Chambliss, and Melody Mathews all struck me as incredibly smart and ambitious -- as I told one of them in an email last night, I doubt this is the last time they will be interviewed by the Washington Post in their lifetimes. Now, onto your questions:


Greensboro, N.C.: If I'm not already in D.C., wanted to, and wanted to but didn't work for the campaign, would it be a waste for me to move up there for a job, considering a backlog of candidiates? Considering applying to law school up there though and networking over those three years as well. What would you suggest?

Ian Shapira: Dear Greensboro,

If you're interested in working in Washington, attending law school here is a great idea and will give you time and plenty of networking opportunities. Law schools are filled with professors who used to work or work part-time on the Hill or serve as advisers in the Executive branch. Your summers may be spent working at law firms, but your path is up to you, so you don't have to get sucked into the typical law school track. You can spend your summers interning with the administration or on the Hill.


Miami, Fla.: Are there White House jobs still available.

Ian Shapira: I do not know if there are White House jobs still available. I bet there are still some left. I did try to call the White House and find out but didn't hear back. One official did return my call late last night and I will get back to her this afternoon or tomorrow.


New York: The juxtaposition of today's article with the announcement that Kal Penn will be starting a new position in the WH as a liaison to Asian Americans and the young was interesting -- was it intentional?

I think that there are good arguments to put Kal Penn in that position, regardless of the amount of time others have been waiting for a call from the WH or elsewhere from new political appointees. He has unique skills and experience that many others don't have, and his celebrity is a benefit in this case. That said, I understand others' frustration with their long waits.

The worst WH appointment ever of a young person new to public policy was Monica Lewinsky. In spite of her ability to develop in what became her new position, she had no interest in public policy or politics when she got the appointment. I see that as the much greater scandal, that completely unqualified, uninterested people get plum jobs in the WH. I don't care that she was an intern -- those positions are coveted by people who want public policy or political careers.

Ian Shapira: Not intentional. But it is hysterical given that Kal Penn was in a movie spoofing Guantamano Bay. Did the administration like his overt and humorous political viewpoints? I saw online that one of Obama's favorite shows is "Entourage" so I know he likes ironic humor. And I believe Kal Penn was also in one season of "24". Clearly, Penn was smart about his path: instead of doing the grad school thing or working on a campaign, he spent his 20s and early 30s starring in movies as a stoner and a terrorist. Now, why didn't everyone else think of that!


Miami Lakes, Florida: I have a law degree and I've been working for Teach for America. What are my chances for landing a job in the education department?

Ian Shapira: Dear Miami Lakes: John McGrath, a spokesman for the Education Department, said in today's article that they have in fact received many applications from Teach for America alum and that they look at them quite seriously. A law degree certainly helps. McGrath also said they look for people who have some experience with education policy. I imagine he meant good candidates could come from the non-partisan non-profit world or the House or Senate education committees.


Falls Church, Va.: Great story, Ian. Thoughtful and well done. One thing these folks need to be mindful of, is that D.C. is a company town, and it's extremely hard to simply waltz in and take a job (Kal Penn the exception proving the rule). Instead of delivering pizzas, these bright young things might think about volunteering for one of the scads of lobby shops/think tanks/orgs that dot the city. You might not be in the administration, but you will get your foot in the door of a place that can show you the ropes. D.C. is a very inside-baseball town-you gotta learn the rules, get the experience and 'then' you might take a shot at a position in the administration. As someone who lobbied (professionally) for several years, you gotta bring more to the table than smarts (lots of people have 'em) and enthusiasm (ditto). So...stop sitting by the telephone waiting for it to ring...get up and DO SOMETHING that might lead to that plum.

Ian Shapira: Hi Falls Church,

Thanks for your kind words. I hear what you are saying -- people shouldn't just sit around and wait or bide their time with basic jobs. I do think, however, that for some people, getting any job that simply pays, helps them focus on what they want to pursue. In my story, Noland Chambliss, a former deputy field director for Obama, said he had applied for a job at a pizza place. But my sense from that move was that he needed to pay bills and wanted to use his free time to concentrate full time on the job search and study up on his specialty. Chambliss struck me as a remarkably talented and precocious young man. He told me he was spending a lot of time reading about climate change and reading climate change blogs. Sometimes when you get a job wherever you can get one -- at a think tank -- that is not in your specialty, that can be more of a distraction than anything else. So, it really depends.


Washington, D.C.: I am the executive director of Democratic GAIN, the professional association for individuals and organizations who work in progressive politics, and I just wanted to make sure that people are aware of us as a resource for them. We offer the largest Job Board in progressive politics, a resume database, career services, mentoring & advice, networking events, career fairs and trainings to people who are looking to work or grow their careers in politics.

I'd just like to remind people who are wanting to work for the administration that President Obama will be president (knock on wood) for at least 4 years and there are hundreds of other ways they can hone and grow their professional skills while building contacts for the future.

They can seek out employment with an advocacy group, a union, go back onto a campaign (36 governors races, dozens of congressionals to hold and several senate seats; not to mention state houses and states and other local elections that will begin staffing up in the coming months), work with a consultant, etc.

Not only will you be working toward the greater good, you will be gathering valuable experience and contacts to help you land a job with the Administration. It might take a little longer, but you'll be in a better position to get a better job.

Just food for thought.

Please check out Democratic GAIN at www.democraticgain.org.

Ian Shapira: I am putting this out there for all you job seekers.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you have a sense that campaign people understand that governing is entirely different than campaigning? I've always been troubled by the influx of campaign workers into government at all levels because then many people's natural inclinations are to campaign, not govern.

Ian Shapira: Dear Fairfax: One of the people interviewed in my story is a man named Clay Johnson, who headed the presidential personnel department during the first two years of George W. Bush's first term. At least during that era, campaign workers were given very credible looks because their work ethic and expertise in various policy issues was intimately known to the higher-ups. A working relationship had been forged over time and, plus, isn't there anything to be said about giving people a chance, especially young people who toiled and knocked on doors and got Obama in the door in he first place? Yes, campaigning is different than governing or policy-making and of course, the Obama administration or any administration wants smart people who know their fields. But my sense from the reporting is that the administrations try to balance things out. Looked at another way, I can bet that many young people working for the Obama press office had little experience as reporters, but does that mean they'd be bad at handling the press? One friend recently got a job in the Education Department but he's never been a teacher or a school administrator, and instead worked at a non-profit specializing in money and politics.


Washington, D.C.: A more general question: for agencies and departments that don't have a jobs section on their Web site nor post things on USAJOBS, where do you even find out about opportunities? Is it all networking, networking, networking?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington: Networking certainly helps. Tapping friends from college, tapping friends from former employers who have connections in the administration -- all that helps. One of the big problems now is that many of the senior or higher level officials at agencies have not been hired yet. Once they do get hired, then it's up to them to figure out: Do I need one or two deputies? Do I need one or two special or confidential assistants? And so on. As I understand it, you can apply for jobs through Whitehouse.gov and state your preferences for which agency. Supposedly, your resume, if deemed good, gets passed onto the appropriate agency and it goes from there.


D.C., of course: A timely article. After the election, I was offered a job at HHS. I quit my job to take this new position, but I then was told that there was a civil service hiring freeze until the new secretary was confirmed. As a way of getting around this hiring freeze, I was told to apply to the same job through the Public Health Service (PHS). After spending over $1,000 to rush my PHS application, I was told that there was yet another hold-up - but that this would be resolved in the next six months "or so." I can't go six months without a job, so I took another, lower paying position. I'm both angry and deeply disappointed. I would have never quit my job without another offer, I'm out the $1,000 I spent to get rushed medical and security clearance, and have not worked in two months. I probably should give up on that HHS job, shouldn't I?

Ian Shapira: Dear DC, of course: Your story sounds totally awful. It'd be great if the federal government could reimburse you or something but I doubt your plight is high on their list. Could you email me offline? Shapirai@washpost.com

For what it's worth, don't give up on that HHS job offer.


Washington, D.C.: What chance does a hard-working former staffer without the last name Kennedy or Rockefeller have in landing job?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington: Where were you a staffer? So many people just presume that all political jobs are obtained through connections -- as if arrangements are brokered between one chum to another. That may be the case for many of the hires, but it's not for others. But why should people be so appalled that people use levers or call upon friends to help them put a good word in? This is the modern world, people. Having the last name Kennedy or Rockefeller helps, yes, but just being a thoughtful hardworking person who is not aimless about their job search is even better. Have you spent time in your field for a few years even? Or, did you work for the campaign? Putting your time in is the best thing you can do.


Part of a larger trend?: Do you think that the Obama volunteers frustrated at not having jobs dropped in their laps are part of a larger trend of entitlement --thinking from that generation? It seems they are similar to the group who gets out of school with a fresh MBA and wants to immediately rocket up in a powerful career. What they aren't taking into consideration is how many other MBA-holders and career business people there are on the scene with them.

How many hundreds of people volunteered on Obama's campaign? What would be the likelihood of the entire bunch securing a position, especially now? It doesn't seem realistic to me. They may simply not be qualified or experienced enough for what they want.

Ian Shapira: Dear Part of a Larger Trend:

You're onto something for sure. Young people nowadays can be accustomed to a regular rhythm of achieving and passing through hurdles: getting into college; getting into grad school; getting the law firm job, and so on. They are used to deadlines and they are used to being able to call an official up and ask: How is my application doing? Have you reviewed it? Why yes, we'll get back to you no later than such and such date. Those conversations don't happen necessarily with these Obama jobs. You upload your life into the black void of Whitehouse.gov or email it to some high ranking official and hope for the best.

I wrote a story about young people applying in droves to MBA schools, to escape the bad economy. You can find those that story, along with other stories on the Millennial generation, at www.washingtonpost.com/youngandambitious.

Current MBA students right now fully recognize what's happening and would be grateful for whatever job offers they can get. Some, however, especially those who left careers to go to MBA school, are upset that their new job offers now do not have the same level of salary. If there's entitlement, that may be because the tuition at these grad schools is so sky-high.

Hundreds volunteered for Obama -- and they all know they all can't work for him. But they at least want a transparent process. Transparency is something the Obama administration wears as a kind of badge.


Washington, D.C.: I am the head of a non-profit group that is focused on development of the smart grid and other energy efficiency issues that are of importance to the Obama administration. I read the article this morning with great interest as I am about to start a search for a new hire to help with both policy work and organizational work. Ex-campaign staffers would be perfect. How can I efficiently let the kind of people that you talked about in your article know about this to see if they are interested.

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington, DC:

Please email me offline and I get you my characters' emails. I am sure they would be interested in talking and helping you get on their list-servs of campaign people. My email: shapirai@washpost.com


'Sometimes when you get a job wherever you can get one -- at a think tank -- that is not in your specialty, that can be more of a distraction than anything else.": I disagree. I volunteered in New Hampshire for the primary with no intention of using it to get a job, and it hasn't gotten me one -- not directly. However, when I returned to my work at a trade association here in D.C., I found that my experience on the campaign changed how my coworkers and our political consultants on both sides of the aisle related to me. Suddenly, we had a common bond and they became more involved in helping me with my Hill job search, and passing on my resume to their contacts. That's not a "distraction". That's good networking.

Ian Shapira: I guess what I meant was: For some people who just got done with the campaign and didn't have a job to return to, getting any job -- a job that is of no interest to you but still requires a lot of work and some level of passion -- can be distracting to your bigger mission. Obviously, if you can't achieve the bigger mission and it's been months of unemployment, it's best to bite the bullet and take that think tank job. And let me make one larger point very clear: I think most folks on the campaign would be happy to be considered for any job in the public policy realm. After all, it's not the economic time to be too picky.


Raleigh, N.C.: What about White House internships? Have you looked into how many people applied this year vs. during the Bush administration?

Ian Shapira: Dear Raleigh: Don't know about White House internships. That's more for people, I think, in college.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I was wondering what happened to those thousands and thousands of campaign staffers. Whenever I would ask people about it they would say, "Oh, they'll just go back to school" so it's great that you pointed out that these people are in their 20s and 30s. They've graduated. They've put serious time and effort in. They need real jobs!

Also, I know that the Obama campaign corps did have more than just young, white, relatively affluent college graduates. But you're really limiting who can work with your campaign if the opportunity is only available to people who can weather being, six months out still without a job and, if they got unemployment at all, unemployment based on astoundingly little pay. There's working for a worthy cause and putting in your time, but there's also being able to pay your bills.

Ian Shapira: Dear Philadelphia: You make a good point about the affordability of these campaigns. But you should know that it was a hardship on a lot of these young people. They do get housing for free, though -- many are put up by supporters in whatever locale they are based. So, it's not just all wealthy people. It's people struggling with things like health care, student loans, car payments.


Ian Shapira: Well everyone, I've got to get going. I hope you enjoyed today's story. Noland Chambliss, Melody Mathews, and Kristen Psaki are some of the more inspiring people I've interviewed while on the Millennials beat.

In the meantime, I really encourage you to write me at shapirai@washpost.com with story ideas and please check out our dedicated page: www.washingtonpost.com/youngandambitious for other stories similar to today's. And I am serious about emailing me with story ideas -- I will write back, promise!


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.

Read the Story: Wishing and Hoping and Networking


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