Jen Psaki Is the Latest White House Press Secretary to Cash In
Today is Jen Psaki's last day as Joe Biden's press secretary before becoming an MSNBC pundit. She's the latest in a long line of Democratic presidential flacks who have become corporate lackeys and mouthpieces.
Today is Jen Psaki’s last day on the job as President Joe Biden’s press secretary before she joins the ranks of MSNBC punditry, taking a job hosting a show on the Peacock streaming service and appearing on the network’s shows as a guest.
The skills required to act as a press secretary in corporate Democratic presidencies — saying little of substance, committing to nothing, dispensing snark and scoffs, and never even accidentally challenging power — appear to carry over well to playing pundit on MSNBC, the corporate network that serves as the Democratic Party’s de facto propaganda outfit.
Psaki’s Democratic predecessors have taken similar paths, leaving their press secretary posts to defend corporate Democrats and big business on cable news spots. In fact, every single press secretary of the Clinton and Obama administrations eventually cut out the middlemen and went to work directly in corporate PR — ranging from managing crisis communications for the scandal-plagued NFL to setting up Amazon’s vast lobbying and public relations shop.
This ongoing history of Democratic presidential flacks becoming corporate lackeys and mouthpieces is proof that when the Jen Psakis of the world are standing behind the dais in the West Wing and dodging questions about campaign promises to cancel student debt or institute a $15 minimum wage, they aren’t just speaking for the president. They are also auditioning for their future corporate employers.
Psaki, who recently said she joined President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign after binge-watching every episode of the TV show West Wing, may have the perfect resume for her new job.
Like many cable pundits, Psaki has deep corporate ties. She previously worked at the Democratic political and corporate communications firm Global Strategy Group, which was recently revealed to have helped attempt to bust a union at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse.
More recently, she was a senior partner at the consulting firm WestExec Advisors, run by former government national security officials, where her client rolodex included rideshare company Lyft and the Israeli surveillance firm AnyVision.
Psaki isn’t the first Biden official to leave the administration for MSNBC. Last year, Symone Sanders resigned her role as a senior advisor and spokesperson for Vice President Kamala Harris to launch her own show on MSNBC. She recently insisted, “I am not a spokesperson for the Biden administration” in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “If I still wanted to be a spokesperson, I would have stayed in the job.”
The show’s debut episode last Sunday — in which Sanders interviewed first lady Jill Biden — saw poor ratings.
From Lewinsky to Zuckerberg
Apparently, serving as press secretary to a Democratic president is great training to run interference for corporations. All three press secretaries from the Clinton administration eventually took jobs in corporate communications.
The first, Dee Dee Myers, is a woman after Psaki’s own heart. She served as a consultant on the West Wing, and inspired the show’s C. J. Cregg character. She also became the cohost of a CNBC talk show after leaving the Clinton administration, and later joined a corporate communications firm. Between 2014 and 2020, she was in charge of corporate communications at Warner Bros., where she guided the company through the Time Warner–AT&T merger as it faced intense regulatory scrutiny, as well as a sex scandal involving the company’s CEO.
Michael McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s second press secretary, is now working at the communications firm Public Strategies. At the company, McCurry made a name for himself by working for large internet companies to fight net neutrality regulations, designed to prevent internet service providers from charging different rates for different websites or content.
McCurry was cochair of the “Hands Off the Internet” group, an astroturf organization backed by AT&T and other telecom providers to fight the net neutrality rules. When asked about his work on behalf of big telecom companies in 2006, McCurry told the Los Angeles Times, “There are millions and millions of good Democrats who get paid by corporations, and I think every time we bash corporations, we just turn off people who are in the middle of the political spectrum.”
McCurry was succeeded in the administration by Joe Lockhart — who later parlayed his experience running media for Clinton during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal into one corporate communications gig after another.
After leaving the Clinton administration, Lockhart and fellow Democratic administration and campaign alumni — including Myers — founded the Glover Park Group, a lobbying and public relations firm whose clients included Pfizer, Visa, Microsoft, and the NFL.
Following his stint there, he took a job at Facebook. “He is the type of hire that makes sense for the company,” political consultant Chris Lehane told Politico at the time. “The company has the potential to tell incredible, good stories about its importance to democracy. Someone like Joe will get how to package why this company is important both for individual members of Congress and agencies but also for its larger brand.”
Later, Lockhart took a job at the NFL, where he helped lead the response to revelations that the league had covered up its own concussion research.
Lockhart said his days in the White House prepared him for the job: “As I’ve shared with some of you, the two years in this role feels a lot like my two years as White House press secretary,” he wrote in a memo announcing his departure from the NFL in 2018. “Given that dynamic, I knew we had to get more aggressive about getting our message out and more agile in promoting and protecting the game and the league.”
Now, while running his own corporate communications shop, Lockhart is also a political analyst at CNN, where he comments on topics including the media’s treatment of Biden. Meanwhile, he’s trying to sell his $10.5 million Brooklyn townhouse. (He previously sold his DC townhouse to the Obamas for $8.1 million in 2017.)
The Obama White House to Fortune 500 Pipeline
The spokesperson-to-business-flack trend continued in the Obama White House, where press secretaries even more shamelessly joined the communications divisions of corporations after leaving the administration.
Obama’s first press secretary, Robert Gibbs, once said that the Bush administration “probably needed a stronger communications strategy” to help that administration justify the idea of bank bailouts. He also infamously told reporters that a sixteen-year-old killed by a US drone strike “should [have] had a more responsible father.”
Gibbs, like Psaki, took a pundit job at MSNBC after leaving the White House. He then went on to set up his own corporate communications shop before taking over as chief communications officer for McDonald’s, just as the company was facing flack from the Obama administration over its labor practices, as well as facing public pressure to raise its wages.
Now Gibbs is a senior counsel at the Democratic consulting firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. He also hosts a podcast, Hacks on Tap, with former Obama strategist David Axelrod and GOP consultant Mike Murphy, where they discuss topics like gas prices and political messaging.
After Gibbs left the White House, Jay Carney took over, and helped implement a new strategy of massively limiting press access to the administration.
In 2013, major news outlets wrote to Carney regarding these restrictions: “We write to protest the limits on access currently barring photographers who cover the White House,” read a letter signed by thirty-eight news organizations. “Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties. As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.”
Carney, after meeting with representatives from some of the media organizations, responded, “There are some things we wish we had done differently and now look with fresh eyes at upcoming opportunities with renewed focus.”
But media watchdog groups continued to raise the alarm about the Obama administration limiting access for the press, including for photojournalists.
Following his work for Obama, Carney joined CNN as a political commentator, and then took the job he is now best known for: running Amazon’s communications division. According to reporting by Reuters in 2020, “Carney reported to founder Jeff Bezos and built a lobbying and public-policy juggernaut that has grown from two dozen employees to about 250.”
“Carney made his mark early when he persuaded a reluctant Bezos to let him publicly excoriate a New York Times story on Amazon’s work culture,” a former Amazon executive told Reuters.
And last but not least, there was Obama’s final press secretary, Josh Earnest.
His time in the White House set him up to take a top PR position at United Airlines at the end of the Obama administration — a job he was prepared for, the company noted, after “more than two decades of strategic communications expertise from the highest levels of politics and government.” He also worked a short stint at NBC as a political analyst after leaving the White House in 2017.
A Troubling Revolving Door
Of course, it’s not just Democrats who have toggled between presidential spokesperson jobs and stints as their party’s cable news mouthpiece.
Former Donald Trump White House flacks Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany took pundit gigs at Fox News, while Sean Spicer hosts a show on Newsmax.
But the Democrats purport to be looking out for the interests of working people, and are oftentimes torn between policies that are popular among their base but would upset corporate donors.
This contradiction has only become more visible in recent months. For while Biden depicts himself as the most pro-union president in American history and invites Starbucks and Amazon labor organizers to the White House, corporations fighting tooth and nail against those unionizing efforts still maintain close links to the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is dragging its feet on a policy that would ban its own consultants from helping corporations engage in union busting.
The revolving door between the press secretary job and corporate jobs is more evidence of the depth of the Democratic Party’s corporatism.
But there may be reason for cautious optimism about Psaki’s successor, Karine Jean-Pierre, formerly the administration’s deputy press secretary. In 2019, Jean-Pierre penned an op-ed for Newsweek encouraging the Democratic Party to cut its ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group.
Jean-Pierre’s criticism of AIPAC — which has deep ties to Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC that has been spending millions of dollars to tank progressives in Democratic primaries — is rare among establishment Democrats.
“You cannot call yourself a progressive while continuing to associate yourself with an organization like AIPAC that has often been the antithesis of what it means to be progressive,” she wrote in the op-ed.