They’ve risen to the top echelons of government bureaucracy and burned the midnight oil for President Obama, and as a result, have had their names floated for top administration positions. But by virtue of bad luck or timing, they have never received the ultimate honor. For some top advisors and politicians, the last four years have left them always playing the bridesmaid, never the bride.
It’s generally not because they have failed to distinguish themselves in their field. Rather, the person who was awarded the top job had something special they lacked. “There’s an unavoidable element of good luck or bad luck about this,” said former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who is perhaps the ultimate bridesmaid of the Democratic Party. Bayh has been mentioned as a possible cabinet member or vice president of every Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, including the 2008 vice presidential pick. He lost out to Vice President Biden in what was described as a “coin toss” in The Audacity to Win, the 2008 campaign tome penned by White House Senior Advisor David Plouffe.
How does he cope? “Your spouse, children and dog usually still love you,” said Bayh, who retired from politics two years ago. “That’s a pretty good thing to focus on in the aftermath of some professional disappointment.”
He counseled patience for the perpetual bridesmaids, citing the case of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who was passed over as Al Gore’s vice president during the 2000 election, lost his own presidential bid in 2004 and then saw his dream job, secretary of State, go to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Finally, last month, President Obama nominated him for the position. There’s also White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, who waited through the terms of Ellen Moran and Anita Dunn before getting his job.
Others look for professional success outside the administration, like Bill Burton. Burton helped foster Obama’s rise from senator to president on the campaign, and then served as the deputy press secretary for top spokesman Robert Gibbs. He was the heir apparent to the job of White House Press Secretary when Gibbs left in 2011, but saw the job go to former reporter Jay Carney instead. Burton left the White House to form Priorities USA Action, the preeminent Democratic Super PAC during the 2012 campaign. “While men and women are remembered for how they succeed, they are defined by how they fail. And by how they come back,” he told his alma mater, City Honors School in Buffalo, N.Y., during a commencement address last summer.
Here is a look at some of the others in the Obama administration who haven’t gotten the top job – at least not yet.
Michael Morell: He’s led the Central Intelligence Agency twice as acting director, but has yet to be permanently appointed to the top slot. His first stint came after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, then the director of the CIA, was promoted to his current job. Morell took over again in November after the next chief, Gen. David Petraeus resigned amid a scandal, but the top job went to counterterrorism advisor John Brennan. “This is no reflection on him,” said Bayh, who as a congressman, worked with Morell. “It’s that John Brennan is also phenomenal, and has developed a deep personal relationship of confidence and trust with the president.
Michele Flournoy: Flournoy led Obama’s transition team for the Defense Department but was appointed Under Secretary of Defense Policy rather than given the top job. She had stepped down from her Defense Department position in 2012 to help with the campaign, and buzz surrounded her name as an alternative to the much-maligned former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. But Obama, not about to give up on this fight, didn’t nominate her to become the first female Defense Secretary
Bill Richardson: The former New Mexico governor was eager for a position in Obama’s first round of cabinet picks after the 2008 election. State, a natural fit for the former diplomat, went to Clinton, and it seemed likely for some time that the Commerce Secretary job would go to Penny Pritzker, a businesswoman and top fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 campaign. But after Pritzker said she was not a candidate, the nod went to Richardson. The problem: he had to withdraw his name just a few weeks later because of a federal investigation into potential pay-to-play practices in New Mexico
Ted Strickland: Although he initially backed Clinton in the 2008 election, the former Ohio governor lent his full support to Obama during the general election. He was a finalist for Democratic National Committee chairman in 2011, but the job went to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Strickland was a national campaign co-chairman for Obama in 2012 and was once again floated as a possible DNC chairman, but the president asked Wasserman Schultz to stay on and his name has not come up as a serious contender for any other positions.
Ed Rendell: The former Pennsylvania governor has made no secret of his admiration for Clinton, a possible reason he was passed over for a cabinet post in Obama’s first term. He’s interested in replacing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood if he leaves, but if that doesn’t happen, Rendell will likely never be a leading man in this administration.
Jennifer Granholm: Her name has come up a number of times: Energy Secretary or Auto Czar in 2008, DNC chair in 2011 (though she said she wasn’t interested). The former Michigan governor has spent the last few years teaching and hosting a show on Current TV, but she announced her departure after the network was sold to Al-Jazeera. Her name has been floated again as a possible cabinet pick following a well-received speech at the Democratic Party Convention, but if no nod comes, she’s probably out.