Call them political romantics. Starry-eyed dreamers.
But as the marathon Democratic primary campaign nears an end, Barack Obama's staff is on the verge of vindicating its belief that the eloquent black first-term senator from Illinois was a unique candidate who could win the Democratic nomination in one of the biggest upsets in presidential politics.
The band of Obama loyalists have stunned even themselves with their success against Hillary Rodham Clinton, who appeared to have wrapped up the nomination last year, before any votes were cast. Now, they face a new challenge with the impending nomination and campaign against Republican John McCain.
If they succeed, many team members could be helping run the country eight months from now. Presidents often appoint campaign advisers to top administration jobs.
The team was led by calm and focused campaign manager David Plouffe; their strategy was inspired by the candidate's experience as a community organizer. They built a campaign designed to accomplish what other political sensations like Gary Hart in 1984 and Howard Dean in 2004 failed to do — turn energy and excitement into long-term results.
"I think everyone knew realistically that he was starting as an underdog," said longtime friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett. "But I don't think he would have started down this path with a team that didn't think he would win. It was going to be an uphill battle, but in the end I think we were all confident that it could be done and that he could do it."
Matching Obama's organizing background, the team has roots in conducting on-the-ground congressional campaigns across the country. Many top aides were groomed by former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt and former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle instead of by the Clinton wing of the party. Clinton's team was built with Washington and New York operatives.
From its experience in congressional races, the Obama team understood firsthand the extent of Clinton fatigue in the heartland and the lesson of the 2006 midterm elections in which Democrats took control of Congress from the Republican Party: America wants change.
Obama's chief directive for hiring the more than 700 staff members who eventually came to work for him was: No Drama Allowed. Obama's even demeanor is reflected in the advisers closest to him. While Clinton's campaign divided into conflicting power centers whose emotional disputes leaked publicly, any fights in the Obama campaign were kept in the family.
Plouffe embodies Obama's vision — a steady and unemotional number cruncher averse to the limelight, able to tune out noise and focus on the moves needed to reach the end game. Plouffe was the mastermind of Obama's long-range campaign plan that looked beyond the Feb. 5 nearly two-dozen-state Super Tuesday votes that Clinton had predicted would deliver the nomination to her. He dispatched staff to states that Clinton's campaign overlooked, particularly small caucus states where intensive organization produced wins that swelled Obama's delegate lead.
Plouffe had worked on campaigns that went broke, so he was notoriously cheap. Obama attracted a talented staff willing to work for much less than they could have made with Clinton. Plouffe carefully minded the bank account to preserve enough money to keep running after the wildly expensive Super Tuesday contests while Clinton's campaign went broke. She had to lend it $11.4 million to stay afloat.
In the month after Super Tuesday, Obama won 11 straight contests and took a delegate lead that Clinton has not been able to erase.
That is not to say Obama's campaign plan worked flawlessly. The initial plan was to turn a win in the kickoff Iowa caucuses into a win in New Hampshire, the next state to vote, that would make his nomination unstoppable, but Clinton defeated him in New Hampshire and the campaign dragged on for months.
Now the team must reunite the fractured party and introduce Obama to a whole new swath of voters as he takes on McCain, a well-known war hero with bipartisan appeal. The campaign is rapidly adding new people, like experienced communications strategist Anita Dunn, who is married to campaign general counsel Bob Bauer and recently joined Obama's inner circle.
Obama's other closest advisers:
- David Axelrod, a former newspaper columnist who shares Obama's talent with words, is the most experienced and visible political strategist. An idealist who exudes enthusiasm for his candidate, Axelrod helps buck Obama up on the road. Also from Chicago, he can play down-and-dirty politics with a Midwestern smile.
- Jarrett, who has helped guide Obama's entire political career, brings blunt assessments only a longtime friend can provide. Jarrett has known the Obamas since before they were married, when she hired Michelle to work for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Known to be cool under pressure, she stepped up her campaign role last fall when Obama was a distant second to Clinton. Bringing a fresh outsider perspective, she held staff accountable.
- Pete Rouse, who has run Obama's Senate office, is known for loyalty and a self-effacing manner. Rouse brings expert knowledge of Washington to a team based in Chicago. He protects Obama's standing in the capital city and has brought in other D.C. operatives, particularly from the Daschle fold where he used to run things.
- Robert Gibbs, who has been at Obama's side since his Senate campaign, is communications director. A Southerner and tough fighter, Gibbs is a passionate defender and can channel the candidate's thoughts. He's also among a few who can frankly tell Obama what needs to improve.
- Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife, is his closest confidant. She often says, "I'm not his senior adviser, I'm his wife." But she also talks about how dinner conversations about their family are what's in his mind when he's crafting policy. She is the ultimate truth teller to the candidate; he calls her for feedback after debates. She has led the campaign's outreach to female voters: As a lawyer and hospital executive, she provides evidence that Obama respects strong women even as he is campaigning against one.
Another crucial adviser is Steve Hildebrand, who oversaw state-by-state efforts to run up Obama wins. Other key team members are finance chairwoman Penny Pritzker, finance director Julianna Smoot, policy director Heather Higginbottom, scheduling director Alyssa Mastromonaco, deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer, national press secretary Bill Burton, economics adviser Austan Goolsbee and foreign policy aides Anthony Lake and Susan Rice.