NYT: Penny Pritzker and Barack Obama — It’s complicated (but not so much about Israel)


The New York Times ran a front-page story Sunday on the scaled down role that Obama-super duper donor Penny Pritzker is playing in this year’s campaign.

A Chicago-based businesswoman-philanthropist, Pritzker was arguably President Obama’s most important political donor in his successful 2004 senatorial bid and the 2008 presidential election. And, as a player in Jewish communal and philanthropic circles, she also served as an important validator among pro-Israel Democratic donors who had concerns about Obama on Israel and would have much preferred Hillary Clinton.

But if you dived into this story looking for evidence of a one-time Obama lover turning sour over his Israel policies… no dice. The only hint of anything Israel-related is a passage about the upset of other donors who are taking out their frustrations on Pritzker. And even there… you need to read into it:

She had drawn business and Jewish leaders to support Mr. Obama, but when many of them turned hostile toward the president because of his policies, some directed their ire toward her, even though she had her own criticisms, too.

The anger amounted to a “triple assault” on Ms. Pritzker, said William M. Daley, who succeeded Mr. Emanuel as chief of staff. “She’s borne the brunt of a lot of the attacks,” he said.

Instead, reporters Jodi Kantor and Nicholas Confessore suggest the Pritzker-Obama complications have to do with the tensions related to a president cultivating wealthy donors at the same time that he’s pushing a populist message and lobbing rhetorical bombs at big business.

For Mr. Obama, Ms. Pritzker’s wealth and business experience are huge assets but also potential liabilities. He considered nominating her for commerce secretary but did not, because her fortune risked making her radioactive. She does plan to join him on the campaign trail this month, but that could prove awkward, given that the president is pounding Mr. Romney for some of the same practices of which Ms. Pritzker or her family business is accused — housing significant wealth in offshore trusts and treating workers poorly.

Ms. Pritzker is still loyal but weary, those close to her say, and she has learned a tough lesson: it is extremely difficult for the president of the United States to be a good friend.

“There is a huge unresolved set of issues in the Democratic Party between people of wealth and people who work,” said Andy Stern, a labor leader. “Penny is a living example of that issue.” …

As far back as 2007, Mr. Obama recognized that his relationship with Ms. Pritzker could be tricky; when he asked her to be his national finance chairwoman, he called labor leaders to alert them, they later said in interviews.

A standoff between labor and Hyatt hotels had been brewing for years over working conditions for housekeepers. By 2009, union officials decided to target Ms. Pritzker because of her ties to the president.

That, and depending on which sources you want to believe, a desire for more substantive input into policy and a little more lovin’:

Still eager to contribute, she traveled to Washington for even minor White House events and served on two economic advisory boards. Her most successful contribution was to foster partnerships between community colleges and businesses.

But some other projects she took on made her “frustrated beyond belief,” in the words of a friend.  “Penny experienced what most people experience when they come from the outside,” Mr. Daley said. “If it doesn’t originate in the bowels of the White House or somewhere else in government, there’s an aversion to it.” …

Ms. Pritzker would also have liked a connection with the president beyond economic policy and fund-raising, several friends said. Mr. Obama has invited only a handful of friends to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland; when asked if she was among them, she said she had all the attention she needs.

“Personal time with a president of the United States could be a five-minute sidebar conversation,” Ms. Pritzker said. “The idea that we’re going to hang out — it’s certainly not my nature, nor is it his.”

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