Q&A With Jerry Abramson: States’ and Localities’ New Man in D.C.

The head of the White House Office of Governmental Affairs talks about his plans for the job and what to expect on the domestic front during Obama’s remaining time in office.
by | March 2015
Jerry Abramson, head of the White House Office of Governmental Affairs
Jerry Abramson, head of the White House Office of Governmental Affairs David Kidd

Over the course of a decades-long career as mayor of Louisville and lieutenant governor of Kentucky, Jerry Abramson dealt with the White House Office of Governmental Affairs through four presidencies. Now, he is running the office. Governing spoke with Abramson about his plans for the job and what to expect on the domestic front during President Obama’s remaining time in office. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why did you want to take this job?

I started my public service career with the federal government [as an Army recruit], and I’m ending my public service career with the federal government. The only difference is now I don’t have to wear a uniform.

That’s a joke. I had never thought about holding this position. I got a call and in talking with the leadership here I got a real sense that on the domestic side of the house, I’d be listened to. The president made some comment that it seems like you have spent your life preparing for this job. Now that I’m here, I think I have the right experience to be able to be helpful to the president.

What are your goals for the office?

My goal is very simple: to make the domestic agenda, branded by the president as the middle-class economics agenda, as successful as possible. I have the ability to meet with mayors, governors, county executives and tribal leaders to explain how middle-class people can extend their paychecks and get better educations for their kids.

The president has called for free community college, changes in the tax code to benefit the middle class and greater investment in infrastructure. What else is on the domestic agenda?

The president has proposed a $263 million initiative on community policing. Affordable housing continues to be a major issue. There’s a great opportunity for high-skill job training, so we can fill the millions of jobs that can’t be filled because employers can’t find people with the right skill sets. Those are all the type of items I worked on as mayor and at the state level, and that’s what the president is focused on.

How much of President Obama’s agenda can pass Congress?

I think there’s room for negotiations and resolution on issues like tax reform, infrastructure and workforce training. Those are all areas where I hear from GOP governors and county officials, as well as mayors.

We have divided government in Washington and to some extent out in the country, with Republicans dominating more governorships and legislatures and Democrats running most big cities. How hard will it be to get everyone pulling in the same direction?

I don’t think there’s a great deal of controversy between Republicans and Democrats [on the issues I just mentioned]. We hosted seven of the newly elected governors, most of which were Republicans -- and all of them talked about trade and infrastructure. For mayors, the issues of infrastructure and investment and workforce training are like No. 1 and No. 1-A issues. You can find things where there are difficulties, but I prefer to see the glass as half full.

You’ve interacted with this office for a long time. How have you seen its role change?

When I was first mayor, that was during the Reagan administration. I think this office is probably more active now [because] there’s so much more happening in state legislatures and city councils. On issues like minimum wage and paid sick leave, there are states, cities and counties that are taking these issues the president is talking about from the bully pulpit and implementing them. States, cities and counties are more important than ever before.

There’s a saying in government that where you stand depends on where you sit. Having worked at the city, county, state and now federal levels, has your own view about federalism changed?

No, it hasn’t changed. I believe the federal government has a role to play. There are decisions that need to be made closer to the people, and obviously states and cities are closer to the people. There are many areas where local decision-making should be the ultimate outcome. But a national agenda needs to be set, and I believe 100 percent in the agenda the president has set.