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Obama alums accused of selling out

David Plouffe is the latest in a string of top Obama alums who have taken jobs that earn grumbles from some on the left.
David Plouffe, former senior advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Swanton, Ohio, September 26, 2012.
David Plouffe, former senior advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Swanton, Ohio, September 26, 2012.

When long-time Obama adviser David Plouffe announced this week that he had taken a job with Uber, the app-based car service, the groans were likely audible in the offices of major labor unions across Washington.

Plouffe managed Obama's historic 2008 campaign and was a leading strategist in the White House and the 2012 re-election. He's the latest in a string of top Obama political aides who have taken their talents to causes that some on the progressive side of the Democratic party disagree with, amplifying grumbles that have mostly stayed private about how a small handful of close Obama ex-pats have chosen to spend their post-White House lives. 

“It's been really frustrating from the standpoint of liberals, progressives, to see how some of the top Obama campaign officials cash in on their experience,” said Steve Rosenthal, the co-founder of the Atlas Project and a long-time Democratic and labor political strategist. He's also involved in a new group backed by unions called Democrats for Public Education.

The Obama alumni in question, on the other hand, insist their work is important, and view complaints from progressives as trumped-up appeals to ideological purity from rivals who have their own political and financial interests at stake.

Uber is locked in a bitter struggle with taxi-driver unions in several cities, which are seeking to protect their members’ hold on the market. Meanwhile, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Obama message master Ben LaBolt recently joined an education reform group seeking to roll back teacher tenure -- an anathema for unions. And Obama 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina is working with the Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, upsetting others in Obama's orbit. 

Converting White House and presidential campaign experience to lucrative private sector contracts is nothing new. But what offends some on the left is the clients the former Obama aides have chosen to take on.

“I think it is new,” Rosenthal told msnbc. “People who were in similar roles in the Clinton White House, they used the experience to do generally good things… You didn't see them cashing in their notoriety and experience to the highest bidder.”

Still, Rosenthal said he was less concerned with Plouffe’s move to Uber, noting that the Obama 2008 campaign manager had a history working for progressive, pro-labor campaigns, like Dick Gephardt’s presidential bid. “He could be a positive voice for us inside that company,” Rosenthal hopes. Plouffe declined to comment.

The more divisive career move is that of Gibbs and LaBolt, who took sides in a pre-existing war within the Democratic Party over education policy between reformers, who want to limit union protections, and organized labor.

Hilary Rosen, a prominent Democratic consultant at the firm SKDKnickerbocker, congratulated Plouffe on his move to Uber, but called the dispute over Gibbs’ work “different.” “That is a philosophical difference among progressives,” she told msnbc.

When Gibbs and LaBolt joined the education reform organization founded by former CNN host Campbell Brown this summer, the backlash was inevitable. Under pressure from the left, they withdrew their firm from the larger Democratic consultancy that housed them, and have been taking flack ever since, especially from unions. 

“Let's be clear about what the consulting project Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt have taken on is,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told msnbc. “They are working for clients who are trying to undermine public education by pitting teachers against students and subscribing to a theory that to help kids you have to hurt teachers.”

Brown’s group recently organized a lawsuit from parents in the State of New York alleging that teacher tenure is unconstitutional. They want to roll back other laws the unions favor as well.  "We are in a war, not a fight," Brown told a charter schools convention in July.

Recently released tax documents for the non-profit group show that it plans to raise and spend $12 million over the next three years, and that Gibbs and LaBolt’s firm, the Incite Agency, is being retained for $25,000 a month, or $300,000 a year. 

Brown’s group also recently hired a consultant with Mercury, a firm that works mainly with Republicans, and Targeted Victory, which ran Mitt Romney’s digital operations. The non-profit’s website, one labor official noted, is hosted on the same server as the one that hosts

“Gibbs and LaBolt are relying on their reputation as Obama alums, yet they should know better than most the toxic and negative effects of a scorched earth strategy and how this kind of strategy derails us from the work we're trying to do to help kids, families and communities,” Weingarten added.

Gibbs and LaBolt defended their work to msbnc, noting there are simply different views in the Democratic Party about how to best educate children.

“The thread that has consistently stitched the Democratic party together is a belief in equal opportunity for all, and as Democrats, we've got to make sure that is true for kids today,” LaBolt said in an email.  “Those defending the status quo have a right to cover their eyes and ears while a wave of Democratic elected and administration officials come out for changing our laws to promote quality teaching in every classroom.”

Gibbs declined to comment on the record.

For Messina, the issue is different. His work for British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party in the UK prompted David Axelrod, one of Obama’s closest former aides, to offer his own services to Cameron’s opponents.

For other progressive Democrats, working for conservatives is almost unforgivable. “I'm really shocked at Jim Messina, whom I worked with on health care, going off to work with David Cameron and the conservative party in England,” Roger Hickey, the co-director of the labor-backed Campaign for America’s Future told msnbc. “Working for the conservative party to win elections -- it's just not an act of solidarity with progressives parties.”

Messina and his allies have noted that the UK is a different country, and that “conservative” there does not mean the same thing as “conservative” in the U.S. Cameron has been a close ally of Obama’s, they note, and supports universal health care, marriage equality, addressing climate change, and other progressives goals. He and his team did not comment for the record. 

But that doesn’t satisfy many Messina critics, who say Cameron’s government is hostile to organized labor, and that just because the prime minister is less conservative than his American counterparts, that doesn’t make him a liberal.

“People sometimes forget where they came from. And I think that's true of Gibbs and I think it's true of my old friend Messina,” said Hickey.

Updated to reflect Rosenthal's involvement with Democrats for Public Education.