More than 100 students had the opportunity to listen to current public policy thoughts from Denis McDonough, former White House Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, during the event “New Frontiers: Labor, Immigration and Foreign Policy.” 

In the conversational event, McDonough and John Ciorciari, director of the Weiser Diplomacy Center and International Policy Center and associate professor of Ford School of Public Policy, discussed the state of labor markets in association with the U.S. economy and international affairs, as well as reflections on McDonough’s time at the White House. 

When asked what changes he believed would be needed to promote a more fair labor market and include the strengths of individuals, McDonough responded with his hopes for the future of the market.

“I’d like to see higher education become more affordable,” McDonough said. “Also, I’d like just to figure out a way for us to have a more nimble training and education, opportunity over the course of an individual’s lifetime, recognizing that you don’t stop upskilling what you’re trying to do … And so the question is how do we make the rest of the training infrastructure more accessible, more flexible and agile to respond to people’s lives, rather than making people drop their lives to try to get into the system.”

Public Policy graduate student Kellen Datta was in attendance to learn more about McDonough’s role in the Obama administration and hear his thoughts on the labor market. 

“I think that the market itself is insufficiently transparent,” McDonough said. “It leaves out a lot of people who may have the skills but are not able to advertise those skills because we advertise the job on credentials that two thirds of the country does not have.”

Datta said the discussion piqued her interest in the policies of the Obama presidency. 

“For the first part of the Obama administration, I was really young, so I didn’t know a lot about it,” Datta said. “Now, looking at it retrospectively, I feel like I have a lot more to learn.” 

When asked what she was excited about most with the event, Julia Schwarz, events and outreach manager at the Public Policy School, said she was looking forward to listening to the political criticisms proposed by McDonough. 

“I think just the breadth of the conversation. He’s not someone that’s just done one thing. He’s done many many things, and I think they’re going to cover a really wide range of topics which will be very interesting.”

Since the end of his term in 2017, McDonough has been involved at the Markle Foundation, where he is a senior adviser working to create a skills-based market that will allow all Americans to succeed in the digital economy. He is also an Executive Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. 

Retired diplomat John Fogarasi and Richard Corson, former director of the East Michigan U.S. Export Assistance Center with the U.S. Commerce Department, were also in attendance. Fogarasi said he wanted to hear McDonough’s perspective as someone who worked closely with Obama as Chief of Staff to the President.

“Both Richard and I have worked in careers in the U.S. government. Listening to an individual who has had a significant role in government is particularly interesting, but we’re both interested in international affairs,” Fogarasi said. 

When asked if they were looking for anything specific to hear, Fogarasi was eager to answer, given his past in the public sector.  

“He’s got such experience. And of course, there’s controversy today about how the White House operates,” Fogarasi said. “So it’s interesting to get his viewpoints on that and perhaps any suggestions and insights he has on going forward.” 

To conclude the event, McDonough gave some advice to students aspiring to work in public service. 

“President Obama sought me out particularly because of my view and oftentimes because he knew it was different than his,” he said. “So my expectation isn’t that I’ll win every argument. Who gets to work at a job where you get to win every argument? And if you do, you’re probably working in the wrong place.” 

McDonough urged students to be outspoken and ambitious. 

“My advice is to speak your mind,” McDonough said. “Be as smart as you can be. Be as passionate as you can be. Don’t put your light under the bushel. Put your light on top of the bushel.” 

Contributor Jonas Gomes can be reached at

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