The former SelectUSA chief speaks about his 8 years in public service and his friendship with Obama, who was his one-time roommate.
By Asif Ismail
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on prominent Indian and South Asian Americans who served in the Obama administration.
WASHINGTON, DC: Vinai Thummalapally is one of the few political nominees from the Obama administration that served from its early days to the very end. A roommate of the former president in the late 1970s, the Indian American business executive served as the US ambassador to Belize from 2009 to 2013. During Obama’s second term, Thummalapally headed SelectUSA, an agency within the Department of Commerce that is tasked with bringing investments to the United States.
Thummalapally, who came to the United States in 1974 as a student, graduated from California State University Northridge, near Los Angeles, in 1977. Prior to joining the Obama administration, he was the president of a Colorado Springs, CO, -based company.
As the sun set on the Obama era on a wintry January afternoon, Thummalapally sat down with The American Bazaar at his suburban Arlington home to reflect on the past eight years, accomplishments of the last administration and his friendship with the former president, among other issues. Here are the edited excerpts.
Your first job in the Obama administration was as an ambassador. How did the call come? Was it out of the blue?
Yes, it was somewhat out of the blue. I was a supporter of the president’s campaign. We go way back — being a college roommate in the late 1970s. We’ve been supporting his political effort since 1995. My family, including our kids, and particularly my wife Barbara, had devoted a lot of time to his campaign. I had played a fairly prominent role in the campaign. I was in the president’s National Finance Committee, helping with raising money, which he termed a necessary evil. He didn’t enjoy raising money and he believes in public financing because of the undue influence of money in politics. But it is what it is and he had to do it. My wife and I did campaign works in nine states; a lot of it was in grassroots work, knocking on doors.
After the election, those who played a significant role in the campaign were asked by the president’s team whether we would be interested in serving the administration. So, I expressed interest. In a questionnaire, we had to pick five out of some 30 areas where jobs were available. Ambassadorship was the fifth box, the last box I checked. The first box I checked was USAID. So the ambassadorship did come as a very big surprise.
Did you do any USAID-related work as ambassador?
I actually did, and my wife very effectively joined me in doing sort of USAID-related work in Belize for the four years we were there. We worked with poor communities, providing access to microfinance for women entrepreneurs and businesses in villages. These are villages that reminded me of India–very, very underserved, very poor farming communities that needed our assistance to get basic funding for being able to sell their farm products and be able to send their children to school. Very basic stuff. So, it was a tremendous privilege and honor and opportunity for me to serve as US ambassador in a small developing country in Central America.
How was your experience in Belize?
Belize is an interesting country. It is a Commonwealth country that has some similarity to India. They play cricket. The head of state is technically the governor general appointed by the Queen of England. They absolutely love the fact that there was an Indian American coming to Belize as a representative of the President of the United States. When they first saw me get off the plane, there were so many smiles from just ordinary people — people who worked at baggage claim, people who worked at the immigration desk. My arrival was already in the news and they were expecting me. So, when I came off the plane, there were three main channels of Belize with cameras rolling. I made my opening remarks telling people how honored and privileged I was to be representing President Obama’s administration. I remember, in the parking lot, one attendant came rushing to me and gave me a big hug, and said: “Sorry, Ambassador, this is the closest I’ll ever come to my hero.” I asked him who’s that hero, and he said that it’s President Obama. So, it was an interesting dynamic. I had a very special time in Belize.
Your next job, which just ended, was as the Executive Director for SelectUSA. How was your experience there?
Yes, it was a very different kind of job. SelectUSA is under the Department of Commerce and promotes investment into the United States from all over the world. This was a program that was essentially started by President Obama in 2011. I joined the program in 2013. What I have just left three and a half years later is a full blown, mature investment promotion agency that was a notable feather in the Obama administration’s hat. It was a very bipartisan effort that essentially helped every community in the United States to assist in their efforts to attract investment into their towns, counties, regions, and states, including the territories. One big success we had was an investment that came into a badly-needed area in Puerto Rico. As you can imagine, the incomes in Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, are less than half of the average of the 50 states. So, we are very proud that we were able to do this big investment that brought in hundreds of jobs into Puerto Rico. I have left this program in a very good place, and I’m very optimistic, very hopeful, and very bullish that this will continue going forward into the Trump Administration.
You were the first Indian American ambassador in the history of the United States. What does that mean to you?
Yes, I feel proud that I was the first Indian American to serve as a US ambassador, and that’ll remain forever in the annals of foreign service for the United States.
Looking back, how would you judge your eight years of government service?
Obviously, it’s a huge privilege and honor to serve in any position because its public service. Coming from a private enterprise into public service, the reason I served was primarily because of the desire to serve in and assist an administration that has an agenda that’s based on giving back to society at large in terms of skills and ability and work. So I feel tremendously privileged to have had that opportunity to give back to the United States, from which I received so much over the 30 plus years. I received education here; and then opportunity to work. Prior to joining public service, I was president of a medium-sized US corporation. I had all this opportunity given to me and then I took advantage of those opportunities. So public service was my way of giving back. It was a tremendous privilege and honor to have been given that. Looking back at what happened, I feel I gave my best and the results are noteworthy. Select USA, the program that I headed for the last almost three-and-a-half years in the Department of Commerce, remains a testament to what has been accomplished as the result of my contribution.
When President Obama came to power it was a pivotal moment in American history. How do you judge the eight years of the administration?
In 2008 and 2009, we were experiencing the largest amount of economic contraction that took place since the Great Depression. Just to give you a sense, we were losing something like 800,000 jobs a month. There was a series of almost a perfect storm of economic disaster. That’s what the president inherited in 2009. If you look at what has happened since then, the gross domestic product has grown approximately 14.5%. The number of jobs — non-farm jobs — that have been created since then are over 15 million jobs. We just ended last month the longest period of positive job growth since the Great Depression in the early 1930s. The biggest accomplishment of the last administration was the economic turnaround and the job creation.
“The biggest accomplishment of the last administration was the economic turnaround and the job creation.”
There are a number of other major accomplishments, among them, are equal pay for women — you know the Ledbetter Act [for Fair Pay] was passed in 2009. Even more important, the Affordable Healthcare Act has allowed 21 million Americans to get healthcare insurance that they previously did not have. We have become energy self-sufficient in many ways. The amount of non-fossil fuel energy growth has skyrocketed, in particularly, in solar but not limited to solar, wind and other areas. The oil and natural gas extraction has continued to grow as well, meaning it was not at the cost of conventional energy. The strength of the US economy is another accomplishment. If you look at the entire globe and if you look at the GDP growth trajectory, the US led that pack, unquestionably. There are accomplishments on the civil rights front also. Take the LGBT rights, for example. On foreign policy, the relationship with Cuba has improved. The Iran nuclear deal has dramatically reduced the risk of the Iranian government acquiring nuclear weapons.
When I look at what has been accomplished, you know it’s a very impressive list of accomplishments. There are other things that are intangible as well. President Obama, not only did he serve as the first African American president the United States, he represented such diversity. His approach was so inclusive of all races and religions and color creed that it has inspired so many people up all around the globe, regardless of their background and their birth. I noticed this through my international travels.
You mentioned a long list of accomplishments. In spite of these, the party of the president lost the election in November. Why do you think that has happened?
So much has already been written about the election, various analyses of what actually caused that to happen. It’s really a global trend that you are seeing in developed economies. You’re seeing these tensions happening in the UK, in Italy, France, and other parts of Europe, where the electorate is rejecting globalization. The globalization has changed the nature of jobs and skills. It requires workers to adapt, but the pace of the adaptation could not keep up with the changes. Automation and information technology revolution have made the skills outdated for lot of the workers, which caused major displacements. That was, I think, at the root of what happened.
That’s Monday morning quarterbacking…
Monday morning quarterbacking or Tuesday morning quarterbacking, the number of changes that took place contributed to this. It created a sense of misunderstanding in the electorate, as to what caused the reduction in their quality of life, or standard of living. It’s not that globalization is the problem, or international trade is the problem. It’s just that your job or your skill sets have not kept up. I am not blaming anybody here.
To me, the heart of the matter seems to be the failure of successive administrations to help maintain skills and prepare Middle America to adapt. Historically, the United States has been the most forceful proponent and champion of globalization, more than any other country. So, here we have an election where a large section of America revolting against the prevailing economic orthodoxy.
Overall globalization has helped America–both American companies and American citizens. But two things have happened in recent years. Real wages have not grown over the last few years, compared to corporate profits. The other fact is the inequality in distribution of income and wealth. Benefits have come and they have come disproportionately to corporations and wealthy individuals compared to be the masses–the middle class and the bulk of the citizens of the United States. The fact that not everybody benefited is a real issue, and both parties should take responsibility for that. All leaders should take responsibility for that. But I have to tell you, the Obama administration, which includes me, had worked hard trying to get everyone reap the benefits of the economic growth. I was involved in a program to improve the worker skills at the community and the grassroots level to assists the community colleges and the regional training centers throughout the country. We put forth many different efforts but they were not supported by Congress. Republicans in both the House and the Senate did not want public spending to go to that particular part of federal government’s efforts. They said it was not the job of the federal government; it was something that the communities had to do, and the businesses will take care of it. That is a free market and that government should not be engaged in it. So, for me it’s quite ironic that the current administration is making it sound like President Obama’s administration did not succeed, did not even have any effort to address that need.
When you’re talking about the jobs, the unemployment rate came down from about 10% to less than half that. So today the US is a full employment economy, which means anybody was looking for a job will find a job. So there is no comparison to what President Obama inherited in 2009 and what he has handed over to President Trump. So it’s quite ironic that he is being criticized for ignoring the working class. He never ignored the working class. He always represented the working class. But he didn’t get support for his policies from Congress approximately six out of his eight years in office.
You know Obama well. Personally, how has he taken the defeat of the Democratic Party nominee?
He is disappointed. In fact, he talks about it very openly. He was very surprised at the results – just like so many others, all the analysts, pollsters, and all the pundits in other, political pundits globally and domestically at the outcome of the elections.
“[Obama] is disappointed [at the election results]… But, he says this is our democratic process, and this is how democracy works.”
But, he says this is our democratic process, and this is how democracy works. Sometimes the outcomes are not what you hope for or what you wish for. They are what they are and you have to accept it, accept the results in and stay focused on your work.
Did you get a chance to talk to him after the election?
I met him on three different occasions after the elections. But we had only light conversations. He asked me if I was going to be in town, and I said yes. He said he would like to get together. On a light-hearted note, he said, “Would you want to go play golf once again with me?” [In his last week in office] he invited to the White House all the political appointees who served his administration. I went with my daughter, who came from Atlanta. who works there for the Centers for Disease Control. She had worked on his campaign in 2004, the Senate campaign.
We didn’t talk about the elections. He was very thankful and grateful for the work I’ve done. Every single time I met him in the past few weeks, he said thanks — “thanks for the work that you’ve done — and he could not have accomplished what he did without appointees and friends and people like me. It was a huge compliment to me personally.
How does Obama view his legacy?
President Obama sees this as a long game. He feels very confident because he’s very grounded, he’s very secure, he doesn’t have too many doubts. He knows his shortcomings, he knows his weaknesses, but overall he feels some he’s left the country in a better position and the world in a better place than what he inherited. He really believes that, and I believe that, without a doubt in my mind. Could he have done some things differently? Of course. But were they earth shaking or were monumental? No. On the other hand, he did he tackle some of the biggest issues in front of him. Very obviously, he is proud of the accomplishments, is proud of where we are.
What do you think is going to be Obama’s biggest legacy?
I think, inspiring young people and sort of letting people have the feeling that they have a stake in politics and influencing public policy — I think that is going to be his biggest legacy. People identify with him because he was not somebody who was born with a silver spoon. He was somebody that many people, not just in the United States, but all over the world identify themselves with. For many, President Obama is somebody who basically came from having so little in terms of privilege. The most important things he had was the love of his mother, particularly, and grandparents and close friends. And how he took that and organized his life, how he lived his life during his college days, coming into the public space as a community organizer—that’s remarkable. He identified the most important things in life. It wasn’t about making a lot of money; it wasn’t about power; it was about doing the right thing. I think the biggest legacy is the fact that he instilled through example, through his life, his own experience, he demonstrated to the world that anybody can accomplish great things, if they apply themselves and if they do the right work and apply themselves in a way that is meaningful.
How is Obama as a private person?
Very thoughtful, very pleasant, very comfortable in his skin. One amazing thing I noticed all through these years — I’ve known him for 35 years, more than 35 years — he is so comfortable in his skin. He is so very happy with himself. So, one of the things I have seen is, he never forgets his friends, he doesn’t forget where he came from, it doesn’t really matter in what all he has accomplished, he’ll always remember them.
“[Obama] himself does try to lower the tensions with expressions like yaar — he says “come on yaar!”
He’s gotten an amazing memory, extraordinary memory. He was telling me a couple years ago, in a very light-hearted way, that he never forgot how to make Indian food. As his roommate, I used to cook — I enjoyed cooking. We used to make daal and heat-up chappathi. I used to make keema along with turkey meat and all those things. He knows all the spices, cardamom, frying the onions, with desi food. He remembers every detail. In fact, I jokingly challenged him to come over to my house and show me if he really actually remembers all the things that he learned 35 years ago. He said he will demonstrate it to me.
He is grounded to such an extraordinary degree despite all his accomplishments. He actually remembers my children’s names and he knows what they’re doing. So, I think personally he is very comfortable, is fun, and has a great, great sense of humor. He is able to laugh at himself, and laugh at us. I was always a little nervous when I’m with him because he’s the President of the United States. Hopefully in the next so many years that may change, and our relationship may become casual. But he himself does try to lower the tensions with expressions like yaar– he says “come on yaar! A few years ago, I was playing golf, he was present with 50 different Secret Service people following us. And he and I were in the cart and I said, “Mr. President.” He said: “come on yaar.” I said, “Sir, I cannot call you anything but that Mr. President.”
My psychology says, after being president for so many years, deep within him, he needs to feel normal. It’s almost like he’s tired of all the attention. He wants to get back to his roots, his base, and I find that very interesting.
Tell us about the early days of your friendship with him. How did you meet him?
I was studying in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, and I had a friend, Pakistani-American Hasan Chandoo, who now lives in New York, has been living in New York for more than 25 years. Hasan was studying at Occidental College, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles. We became roommates. He introduced me to Obama. Soon after that, we all needed to shift to another apartment. Obama was also looking for a place to stay. So, we roomed in a small four-bedroom two-bathroom. It was Hasan Chandoo, Barack Obama, my cousin Ramesh Reddy, and myself. That’s how we met. We lived there for one year. We never lost touch.
“[We] kept in touch because we had become very good friends. He invited, Barbara, my wife, and I to his wedding in 1992. We went to Chicago to his wedding.”
He went on to finish his undergrad in Colombia. But, we kept in touch because we had become very good friends. He invited, Barbara, my wife, and I to his wedding in 1992. We went to Chicago to his wedding. While at Harvard, he became president of Harvard Law Review. Then, in 1995 he told me, I want to run for state office, which was a big surprise for us because we thought how is he gonna do it? — he’s just such a nice guy. I had an image that politicians need to be tough …Of course, the rest is history.
You played golf with him in between?
Years ago, we used to jog and we used to go hiking and all that fun stuff. But I only had a chance to play golf with him once, in 2013, when he invited me to play with him. Since then he has said many times that we have to go out and he’s been obviously so busy.
Now you both are going to be in the same town.
Yes, we’ll be here in Washington. He told me he’s gonna stay here for at least two years to make sure that his younger daughter finishes her high school. So in that context he said that he’ll be reaching out to me very soon, to get together. So I hope to be spending some time with him.
What are your future plans?
So, I actually, I did not have chance to look for another job or engagement, but I’ll soon be in that mode. Hopefully, we’ll stay here [in the Washington area]. We like this place, would stay here and ideally take up a job that would take me back to India periodically. We have to get to spend time with my parents, who are in Hyderabad, and my family. That would be ideal, but we’ll see how it goes.