Saturday, July 5, 2008
Obama's Brain Trust
Obama's Brain Trust
Obama's Brain Trust
The candidate's handpicked team of top advisers has raised more than $250 million, outmaneuvered the Clintons and created a formidable grass-roots political machine. So why doesn't anyone know their names?
Posted Jul 10, 2008 8:10 AM
On the June evening in St. Paul when he captured the Democratic nomination, in between shout-outs to his daughters and his grandmother, Barack Obama paid tribute to a political operative most Americans have never heard of. "Thank you to our campaign manager, David Plouffe," Obama said, "who never gets any credit but has built the best political organization in the country."
Obama isn't exactly known for understatement. But in describing the machine that Plouffe and his political team have built, the candidate was actually far too modest. By marrying online technology to grass-roots activism, Obama's brain trust mobilized 1.5 million donors, raised more than $250 million, derailed the Clinton juggernaut and built something new in Democratic politics. "The size and scale and sophistication of the Obama enterprise — it's like a multinational corporation compared to the mom-and-pop nonprofits of previous Democratic campaigns," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the progressive think tank NDN and a veteran of Bill Clinton's 1992 run. "And it isn't just bigger — it's a better model, it's more democratic, it taps into the power and passion of everyday people."
It's also remarkably disciplined: Obama's top advisers outmaneuvered Hillary Clinton's organization with no leaks, no nasty infighting and virtually no public credit for their efforts. By all rights, Plouffe and the other chief architects of Obama's machine should be household names on par with James Carville and Karl Rove. And yet, with the exception of chief strategist David Axelrod, who has emerged as an affably low-key spokesman for the campaign, Obama's brain trust works in near anonymity from the campaign's headquarters on the 11th floor of a smoked-glass skyscraper two blocks south of the Chicago River.
That obscurity is by design. Members of Obama's inner circle are largely unknown to the public because the second rule of the campaign is: All credit accrues to Obama. The first rule? Don't talk about Team Obama. As senior adviser Valerie Jarrett puts it, "We aim for you to not know about the inner workings of the campaign because there's not much to know other than: It works."
The Obama campaign, like the candidate himself, is paradoxical. The same machine that has given unprecedented control to tens of thousands of volunteers at the grass roots has also set a new benchmark in Democratic politics for tight-lipped, Fortune 500 professionalism at its highest rungs. To use a computing metaphor for the Obama machine: The software may be open-source, but the CPU — humming high above Michigan Avenue — remains, quite literally, a black box.
In many ways, this split is a reflection of Obama himself. In public, Obama comes across as a political Superman who can inspire stadium-size crowds of supporters. But behind the scenes, Obama is as mild-mannered as Clark Kent — and he has built his senior team to reflect his quiet, down-to-business self. "The tone starts at the top," says Jarrett. "When Barack walks into the room, there's never tension. And he wanted to make sure that the team he selected was also drama-free. He wanted to make sure that tone permeated the campaign."
The drama-free approach proved to be in sharp contrast to the Clinton campaign, which was beset by leaks and infighting among factions of overbearing strategists (Mark Penn), know-it-all advisers (Harold Ickes), egotistical flacks (Howard Wolfson) and self-important campaign managers (Patti Solis Doyle) who battled noisily — and publicly — over message, budget, access to the candidate and prestige. From Day One, Obama was determined that his campaign would be different. In the winter of 2007, when senior staffers gathered for one of their first meetings in Chicago, the candidate laid out his expectation. "Most campaigns are chaotic," Obama told them. "I want a campaign that is buttoned up like a business. If people have problems, they work it out.It's not a 'we're gonna work this out on page 2 of The Washington Post."
Obama underscored the theme again in June, when he addressed his entire Chicago staff after finally wrapping up the nomination. As he spoke, staffers poked their heads above gray, corporate cubicles in what could easily be mistaken for an E-Trade office rather than a presidential campaign headquarters.
"When I started this campaign," Obama told them, "I wasn't sure that I was going to be the best of candidates. But what I was absolutely positive of was that there was the possibility of creating the best organization. The way great things happen is when people are willing to submerge their own egos and focus on a common task. That's my old organizing mind-set. It's not just a gimmick, it's not just a shtick. I actually believe in it."
The story of how Obama assembled his top advisers — and how he got them to work together as a team — offers a glimpse into his approach as a chief executive who manages an organization of nearly 1,000 employees. Obama has built "an amazingly strong machine," says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, president of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute at the Yale School of Management. "People expected a more ad hoc, impromptu, entrepreneurial feel to it. It has been more of a well-orchestrated symphony than the jazz combo we expected."
Indeed, in merging the talents of powerful Washington insiders and outside-the-Beltway insurgents, Obama has succeeded at a task that has traditionally eluded Democratic candidates: forging an experienced inner circle who set aside their differences and put the candidate first. "The whole point is that it's not about any of these guys," says longtime GOP strategist Frank Luntz. "They feel blessed. They see it as how lucky they are to be working for this man, at this time, in this election. This is the dream team for the dream candidate. I waited all my life for a Republican Barack Obama. Now he shows up, and he's a Democrat."
Read the rest of the story, you will learn a lot about this WINNING team