(Speculation abounds that Senator Barak Obama will make the announcement he is forming an exploratory committee this week. In advance, the Chicago Tribune did a pretty good review of his inner circle.)
Meet Obama's inner circle
Ahead of likely presidential campaign, senator relies on core of trusted advisers
By Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons
Tribune staff reporter
January 14, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The gravitational pull around Sen. Barack Obama grows stronger day by day, as he and his advisers seek commitments from political operatives and donors in preparation for a likely run for the presidency.
The existing core of advisers around the Illinois Democrat simultaneously anchors him in the pragmatic sensibility of his urban Midwestern home base and encompasses the world of ideas of his Harvard Law School classmates.
The political professionals who are Obama's closest formal advisers are careful, deliberate counselors, wary of unnecessary risks and no strangers to campaign street fights. The informal coterie is a multihued collection of high achievers, men and women who are friends and intellectual peers.
There's David Axelrod, the strategist at Obama's right hand, perhaps the best-known Democratic consultant working outside of Washington, D.C., equally adept at sensing the right metaphor for high-minded aspirations and at finding the vulnerable spot to savage an opponent.
Then, Robert Gibbs, communications director, a campaign veteran described by one Democratic operative--approvingly--as "Northern ruthlessness and Southern charm combined."
Key players also include friends of Obama's, among them a straight-talking veteran of Chicago Democratic circles, Valerie Jarrett, and a group of South Side professionals.
Perhaps most influential is his wife, Michelle, a formidable daughter of the South Side who is an alumna of the Ivy League and Chicago's rough-and-tumble City Hall. She may not be in on all the conference calls or offer her own health plan in the style of former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton but no one else in the inner circle denies that she would be a driving force in any presidential campaign.
At the center is a 45-year-old political phenomenon who close associates say is prepared both to challenge the views he hears from advisers and to be challenged by them.
"He really wants to know all the points of view in the room. He doesn't want to shut people down or force a consensus," said Michael Froman, an informal Obama adviser who was a Harvard Law classmate and chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin.
Obama "pushes back" in those conversations, said Jarrett, a friend of both Obamas whose dining room table in Hyde Park has sometimes been the setting for consultations. He's intent on thinking through ideas thoroughly, she said.
The senator periodically assembles informal advisers and his senior Senate staff for freewheeling evening sessions to set strategy and appraise his performance. In November, it was a four-hour gathering with stacks of takeout pizza boxes on a conference room table to talk over the senator's future.
Obama and Axelrod speak almost every day. But Obama also often reaches out directly to friends for advice, by e-mail or telephone. Sometimes, the conversations are leisurely. But lately they are mostly quick and compressed, snatched by cell phone as he moves between committee hearings or during downtime in a car traveling from event to event.
Though Obama hasn't announced a run for the White House, he and his advisers are working so intently to put the pieces in place that operatives are starting to tell Obama's likely rivals they are unable to work for those candidates because they are otherwise engaged.
Associates say Obama has settled on Chicago as the headquarters for a national campaign. Donors and fundraisers are being asked to make commitments, and the nascent operation is pulling in staffers and consultants from throughout the nation.
David Plouffe, an Axelrod partner who worked on Obama's 2004 Senate campaign, is the likely campaign manager.
Bill Burton, national press secretary for the House Democrats' midterm campaign, is likely to join up, associates said.
Peter Giangreco, a Chicago-based media consultant and veteran of the Iowa caucuses, is on board to do the direct mail as is his West Coast partner Larry Grisolano. At least one pollster is lined up: Paul Harstad, another Iowa veteran, who also worked on Obama's Senate campaign. Julianna Smoot, finance director for John Edwards' 2004 campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006, will fill the same role for Obama.
But the group most tightly circled around Obama is a longstanding one, made up of old friends who share an understanding of how he works.His relationships with them provide an insight, albeit admittedly sympathetic, into his approach to leadership.
Axelrod has been a political counselor to Obama even before his Senate race. Gibbs joined shortly after Obama won the primary. Gibbs and Axelrod were standing together on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 for the speech that would propel Obama onto the national stage.
The two men had emerged from backstage to stand amid the crowd for the speech they'd heard Obama, then the Democratic nominee for the Senate, practice several times. As enthusiasm engulfed the convention delegates, both men say, they knew they were working for something more than the average Senate campaign. People around them were crying.
"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Gibbs recalls saying to Axelrod.
Neither man is prone to swooning over candidates. Since leaving a job as the Chicago Tribune political writer in 1984 to become spokesman and eventually campaign manager for Sen. Paul Simon, Axelrod has been a part of almost every high-profile campaign in Illinois and several national ones.
No stranger to a good game of political hardball, Axelrod, during the Illinois Democratic primary for governor in 1998, put together TV ads that made right-of-center Congressman Glenn Poshard look notably like Adolf Hitler.
Gibbs joined with Obama during the summer of 2004, several months after leaving the John Kerry presidential campaign. But he quickly became close to Obama, traveling with him extensively during the final months of the campaign. Gibbs had worked as a national spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2002 and on several Senate campaigns before that.
Gibbs said working with Obama was clearly going to be different, as evidenced by the way his 2004 speech came together. Obama never asked him for a set of "talking points," which might have been the first order of business for others. Instead, he asked for audio and video of previous convention speeches to make his own assessment.
Obama then holed up in a hotel in Springfield, where the legislature was in session, and wrote the speech, Gibbs said.
Chief of staff Peter Rouse, who previously headed the office of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, was added after Obama's election. Rouse is a low-key institutionalist with an expansive knowledge of Senate folkways and a reputation for loyalty and discretion.
In a presidential campaign, associates said, Rouse's role would be to remain behind to watch Obama's back in the Senate, where rivals and their allies will have plenty of opportunities to lay political traps.
As a group, "they're all incredibly deliberative," said Erik Smith, a veteran Democratic operative.
"They're all just sort of doers. There aren't a lot of big personalities like [Clinton strategist] James Carville or [Kerry strategist] Bob Shrum," added Steve Elmendorf, deputy campaign manager for Kerry's 2004 presidential run.
State Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago), an early mentor, continues to give political counsel. Obama also recently has sought advice from several seasoned political advisers, including former Clinton Cabinet member and party elder Bill Daley, who in turn has been quietly asking others for promises to support Obama.
"He brings stature and experience," said Elmendorf. "He can get on the phone with elected officials around the country."
Still, Daley's role is not yet clear, Axelrod said.
"Bill's among many friends who are supportive of Obama," Axelrod said. "I don't know what role he would play in a campaign."
Members of the team say the way Obama relies on his advisers is as conversationalists who explore issues in depth.
Jarrett brings two decades of Chicago political experience including as a former aide to Mayor Richard Daley and his appointee to head the Chicago Transit Authority. Jarrett now serves as chairwoman of the Chicago Stock Exchange Board and will rise to CEO of the Habitat Co. at the end of the month. As a good friend, she can speak bluntly to Obama.
"He rarely accepts anyone's initial position without any push back," Jarrett said. "He consistently probes deeper and deeper to make sure that you and he both have really thoroughly analyzed any given issue."
Several other successful Chicago professionals are dinner and conversation companions. John Rogers, head of Ariel Capital Management, is a friend drawn into the family circle by Michelle Obama's brother Craig Robinson, with whom Rogers played basketball at Princeton University.
He also lives in Hyde Park and has occasionally played basketball with Obama--most recently at the 40th birthday party of Martin Nesbitt, president of Chicago-based PRG Parking Management and another informal adviser. Also at that party was Jim Reynolds, chairman and CEO of Loop Capital, who also provides regular counsel.
Obama deals with his friends much the same way he relates to everyone who crosses his path, Rogers said.
"He has this ability to connect and bring people together," he said. "I've seen him wow people at the Commercial Club of Chicago, and then I go to New York to watch him with the Wall Street Project, a mostly minority crowd, and they're hanging on his every word."
Obama also turns to a small circle of Harvard Law School classmates who have been friends for nearly 20 years.
Law School connection
Cassandra Butts, who first met Obama at the financial aid office, said the friends sometimes would spend time "just sitting around and talking about how we were going to change the world. ... How do you take this thing we're learning in law school and make a difference on the issues that we care about?"
By the time Obama was elected to the Senate, Butts had been a senior policy adviser to House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt and to the Gephardt presidential campaign. She took a two-month leave from her job at a Washington think tank to help Obama set up the office.
Froman and Julius Genachowski first knew Obama as colleagues on the Harvard Law Review. Both men have since combined success in Washington and in business. Froman went from Rubin's Treasury Department staff to an executive position at Citigroup. Genachowski, a former chief counsel to then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt, is now a technology executive and investor.
Together they have helped guide Obama in the ways of Washington. Though not a law school classmate, Broderick Johnson, a former congressional liaison for the Clinton White House and now a lobbyist for AT&T, also joined them. So did Don Gips, former chief domestic policy adviser to Al Gore and now a telecom executive.
Obama also reached out to some of them for comments on chapters of his recent book, and he often does the same with drafts of important speeches.
The tone that Obama sets is different than most politicians in Washington, associates said.
"With Barack it's much more collegial than paternal," Butts said. "He doesn't require the Greek chorus to approve of his ideas."
But he does turn to his wife for a moral check.
Although she is a Harvard-educated lawyer who once worked for Mayor Daley, Michelle Obama doesn't play a day-to-day role in her husband's work, associates say. Instead, says Jarrett, she is the "true north" on his compass.
She says exactly what she thinks, friends say, and when others might tell Obama how to get elected, she reliably advises him not to calculate that way.
"She always asks Barack, `What do you think is the right thing to do?'
" said Jarrett. "
`Forget about what polls say. Do your homework. After you've done all the due diligence, what's the right thing to do?' "