White House counsel Bob Bauer, President Barack Obama's point man in the search for a new Supreme Court justice, manages to get credit both for an even temperament and his finesse with a sledge hammer.
The combination is evident in one of Bauer's favorite memories from the 2008 presidential primaries, when Obama campaign aides worried that opposing forces were trying to depress voter turnout. Bauer, the campaign's top lawyer, confidently reassured staffers that he'd have anyone engaged in such conduct arrested.
It was a morale-boosting bit of bluster that campaign workers quickly turned into a T-shirt that had "I (heart) Bauer" on the front and his quote — "We may have to arrest people" — splashed across the back.
"I felt, for a moment, like Patton," Bauer later recalled, invoking the steel-jawed general from World War II. "Not bad."
Now Bauer, 58, is plying his mix of legal reasoning and tough-guy determination from a West Wing corner office. The White House counsel is leading the search for a Supreme Court nominee and planning how to steer that choice safely through the shoals of Senate confirmation.
It's a job that requires not just legal smarts but equal parts political and media savvy as well.
Go-to-lawyer on the go
That's only part of a bulging portfolio that has the top White House lawyer up at 5 each morning to read the papers, in place at the White House for the 7:30 a.m. senior staff meeting, and poring over paperwork late into the night at home.
Bauer also is trying to help the administration find a way out of its conundrum over what to do with detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, and he's juggling a full slate of other legal issues.
He had a role in muscling the president's health care overhaul through Congress last month, and now his office will help to fend off legal challenges to the law.
It's a surprisingly expansive role for someone best known for his expertise on campaign finances and elections.
Bauer wrote the book on campaign finance law. Two of them, in fact.
For decades, Bauer has been the go-to lawyer for Democrats looking for advice on campaign matters and ethics questions. Past clients have included the Democratic National Committee, the campaign committees for House and Senate Democrats, congressional Democrats during Bill Clinton's impeachment saga, and a freshman senator named Barack Obama.
"We used to joke that we had Bob Bauer on speed dial," says former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who relied on Bauer's advice during the impeachment drama and used him as his personal lawyer for 15 years.
It was that specialized background that raised some eyebrows when Obama chose Bauer to serve as White House counsel in December.
'A brutal position'
But White House counsels have come from all sorts of legal backgrounds, and there's no predicting which ones will find the job a good fit.
"I was surprised that he took it," said Joe Birkenstock, a former counsel to the Democratic National Committee who has worked with Bauer over the years. "It can be such a brutal position."
Bauer, who returned to private practice after the 2008 campaign, was brought to the White House to replace chief counsel Greg Craig. Craig resigned after catching heat for his handling of the administration's clumsy effort to shut Guantanamo.
Now it's up to Bauer to present Obama with fresh options on how to close Guantanamo and ensure that the administration can prosecute at least some detainees in U.S. courts. The administration had to backtrack after running into a buzz saw of opposition to its plan to bring avowed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four henchmen to trial in New York City.
"Bauer strikes me as pragmatic, not as ideological," said Human Rights Watch advocacy director Tom Malinowski, who met with Bauer last month about the detainee issue. "The perception people have of Bob is that he is a bit more of a low-key, honest broker."
One of the first things Bauer did after joining the counsel's office was to work on a game plan for the next Supreme Court vacancy, even though Justice John Paul Stevens hadn't announced plans to retire. Bauer already had some insights into the selection process: He had served as an informal adviser when Obama chose his first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, just four months into his presidency.
This time, Bauer "has taken what is generally a rushed, crazed, high-pressure time period and made it orderly and organized and feel very much in control," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.
No sudden surprises
Bauer updates Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, on his daily to-do list, and runs through his game plan in biweekly meetings with his team. That team includes communications specialist Anita Dunn, who is coordinating White House contacts with outside organizations on the nomination and also happens to be Bauer's wife.
Bauer's rapport with Democratic members of Congress will be critical when Obama's choice is presented to the Senate for confirmation.
"When he comes up to the Hill and he says something, he has automatic credibility," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy, D-Vt., said Bauer could be counted on to conduct a thorough checking of the nominee's background to ensure that Obama's choice can be approved before the Senate's August recess.
"The only thing that would throw the nominee off that schedule is if there is a sudden surprise, and Bob's not a person who comes up with sudden surprises," Leahy said.
Rep. Bark Stupak, D-Mich., said Bauer acted as the consummate lawyer during the health care debate, helping to negotiate an executive order on abortion designed to pull in a few critical votes from anti-abortion Democrats.
"He didn't push us," Stupak said. "He would say, 'May I make a suggestion here?'"
Although known as a Democratic partisan, Bauer is respected by GOP opponents.
Trevor Potter, who went up against Bauer as counsel for Ariz. Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008, says Bauer has three key qualifications for White House counsel: "He knows everyone in the political world in Washington. He's a really good lawyer. And he clearly has the president's confidence."
The latter may be the most important.
"When Bob speaks about the president's wishes on a particular set of issues, people are pretty sure he's right," said Pfeiffer.
Bauer dispenses his legal advice with one eye on the baseball stats in the newspaper and while working a well-placed pun into many an e-mail.
He and senior Obama adviser David Axelrod have been known to engage in long-running cyberpun-offs, to the dismay of others on the distribution list.
But he can play tough.
"When the job calls for a sledge hammer, he's pretty good at bringing out the sledge hammer," said former DNC counsel Birkenstock. He remembers being chewed out by Bauer, but also how quickly Bauer would pivot back to working cooperatively.
During the 2008 campaign, Bauer audaciously barged in on a Clinton campaign conference call with reporters to offer the Obama campaign's counterpoint on the issue du jour. When Bauer hung up, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson found himself spelling out Bauer's name for confused reporters.
"I thought it was aggressive, but not over the line," Wolfson says. "And I liked him immensely, so it was hard to be angry with him."
After the breakneck pace of 2008, Bauer went back to representing various Democratic interests, and had only sympathy for staffers who headed straight for the White House.
"I'm fine," he said in an interview last spring with his alumni magazine at the University of Virginia Law School, "but they're working on fumes over at the White House."
Now he's breathing that same air.