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Obama's Sugar Mama

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Obama's Sugar Mama

AP

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Penny Pritzker was Barack Obama’s first billionaire. Their relationship goes back to the early 1990s. Before Obama ever ran for public office, he and Pritzker served together on the board of the Annenberg Challenge, a foundation that distributed $150 million to the public schools.

For Pritzker, heiress to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, serving on the board was a civic duty that came with wealth. For Obama, who had recently returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School, the Annenberg Challenge was his coming out as a member of the city’s elite. He was elected its chairman, and used it as a resume line when he ran for state senate in 1996. (The Annenberg Challenge’s greatest legacy was as a networking opportunity for the future president. A University of Illinois at Chicago study found it had “little impact on student incomes.”)

When Obama was thinking of running for the Senate, he knew he had to raise millions of dollars. So he asked his best friend, Marty Nesbitt, the vice president of Pritzker Realty Group, to arrange a meeting with his boss. One weekend in 2002, Obama and his wife, Michelle, drove out to Pritzker’s Michigan vacation home. Obama impressed Pritzker as “a guy with an amazing intellectual capacity,” and she decided to get behind his campaign. Her support attracted several more liberal millionaires, including Newton Minow and James Crown. On Primary Night 2004, Obama held his victory party at the Hyatt.

Pritzker was finance chair of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, but now, reports The New York Times, the sugar mama has become disillusioned. After the election, Obama passed her up for Commerce Secretary, because she was too rich, and she became the target of a campaign by the Service Employees International Union, which was protesting Hyatt’s replacement of nonunion chambermaids with even lower-paid contract workers.

Ms. Pritzker’s commitment has become a matter of mystery and consternation among some Obama supporters struggling to recreate the success of the 2008 finance team that she led as chairwoman. Though she is assisting with the re-election campaign in a number of ways, Ms. Pritzker — whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain and is active in charitable and Jewish causes — is less visible, has cut back on fund-raising and has told friends that she is intentionally doing less.

Some donors have taken that as a signal — or used it as an excuse — to scale back, according to those involved in fund-raising, even as the president’s fund-raising pace lags behind that of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.

The story’s most telling line is this: “she has learned a tough lesson: it is extremely difficult for the president of the United States to be a good friend.”

Pritzker has never been invited to Camp David, and feels the White House ignores her advice. She’s certainly learned a lesson about Obama. Even more than most politicians, Obama is there when he needs you. An abstracted intellectual and a loner, he’s not a guy who develops a lot of close personal friendships. Loyalty to old allies is not one of Barack Obama’s strong suits. Throughout Obama’s rise, most of his relationships have been expedient: once he had no more use for supporters, he dropped them from his circle, sometimes telling a perplexed functionary to stop calling his cell phone and start calling his people.

“There were a number of people who worked for Barack in the early days, then found Barack was working with a different group of people,” one old supporter would put it. “They felt kind of squeezed out.”

It may have been a mistake to treat Penny Pritzker that way. He needed her to get to the top, and he needs her to stay there, too. 

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

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