Monday, January 15, 2007

Meet Obama's inner circle

By Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons for the Chicago Tribune
Published 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.

Read the entire story HERE.

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