If potential presidents can be judged by how they run their campaigns, then how they staff those efforts may provide important clues to the kinds of talent they would recruit for their administrations. Because Democratic front-runner Barack Obama is a relative newcomer to national politics, an examination of his inner circle of political and policy advisers offers new windows into his thinking, leadership style, and sources of expertise.
The Democratic front-runner's team has a relatively shallow bench, but its political achievements thus far are quite impressive.
To be sure, Team Obama has made a few stumbles that give pause to some observers. One of the candidate's foreign-policy advisers resigned after a Scottish newspaper quoted her as calling Hillary Rodham Clinton a "monster." Another, a retired general, likened former President Clinton to infamous red-baiting Joseph McCarthy. And Obama's chief economic adviser inadvertently became a minor liability after it was reported that he met with Canadian diplomats in Chicago and either played down Obama's skepticism about the North American Free Trade Agreement or had his informal remarks misinterpreted, as the campaign maintains.
Obama's team has a relatively shallow bench: Several players are responsible for an extraordinarily wide range of policy areas. But whatever the lapses and shortcomings of Obama and his closest aides, it's hard not to be impressed with their political achievements. The campaign has taken on the power couple who have dominated Democratic politics for the past 16 years and reduced a once-mighty heir apparent to a lackluster underdog.
"I would describe it as an excellent campaign," says Democratic media consultant Tad Devine, who worked on the presidential campaigns of nominees John Kerry and Al Gore but is not taking sides in the Obama-Clinton battle.
Although Obama has had a solidly liberal voting record in the Senate -- the most liberal record in 2007, according to an analysis by National Journal -- his policy advisers tend to be moderates. Indeed, Obama explains his roll-call record as a product of votes that push senators to one extreme or the other, and he maintains that his presidency would move the nation into a less ideological, more cooperative era.
What follow are mini-profiles of many of the key players on Obama's political and policy squads.
Obama is fortunate to have a gifted team of experienced political operatives guiding his historic run for the White House. It's a group united by deep loyalty to the candidate, even though few knew him before his 2004 campaign for the Senate.
"You have to give them really high marks for a good, solid campaign," says media consultant Bill Carrick, who has been involved in Democratic presidential politics since 1980 but is currently neutral. "They knew exactly what they had to accomplish, and did it."
Well over a dozen political operatives have played key roles getting Obama to the brink of the 2008 Democratic nomination. At least four in particular stand out.
"Ax," as he is called around the campaign's Chicago headquarters, met Obama in the early 1990s when he was a community organizer leading a voter-registration drive on the South Side. Axelrod served as advertising director for Obama's 2004 Senate campaign. Today, as Obama's chief strategist, he is responsible for crafting ads and helping the candidate to hone his message.
A former political reporter, Axelrod, 53, left the Chicago Tribune in 1984 to become press secretary for then-Rep. Paul Simon, D-Ill., who was running for the Senate. He soon took over as campaign manager. After Simon won, Axelrod formed a political consulting firm in Chicago and quickly established himself as a fixture in Windy City politics, as well as statewide. In 1989, Axelrod went to work for Richard M. Daley in his first successful bid to be Chicago's mayor, and he has remained close to the Daley machine ever since. Although Daley's ascent to the job his legendary father had held displaced the African-American leadership from City Hall, Axelrod has helped to elect several black mayors around the country, including one of Daley's predecessors, Harold Washington.
No one successfully navigates the byzantine and bare-knuckles world of Illinois politics without causing at least a bit of controversy, and Axelrod has been criticized over the years for some hard-hitting television spots. But his reputation in the consulting business is solid, and he is generally held in high regard. Tom O'Donnell was a media consultant for Chris Van Hollen of Maryland in 2002 when he ran against Kennedy family member Mark Shriver, an Axelrod client, in a high-profile Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat. After Van Hollen won, O'Donnell recalls, Axelrod "called me and said we ran a really good campaign. I think it's the first time I had a competitor do that," he said. "He's got a lot of class. And I think he's done a tremendous job in this campaign."
Since 2002, Axelrod's firm, AKP&D Message and Media, has worked on 42 primary or general election contests around the country and helped win 33 of them. Axelrod was a media consultant for John Edwards's 2004 presidential bid. Ironically, Axelrod interviewed to become Hillary Clinton's media consultant when she first ran for the Senate in 2000. He didn't get the job, but he did produce issue advertising boosting her candidacy for the New York Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
As Obama's campaign manager, Plouffe is widely credited with running one of the most impressive presidential nominating operations in recent memory. He is known for his discipline and for his ability to maintain a steady course through a campaign's inevitable ups and downs. "He is the most focused, talented operative I've ever worked with," says Democratic lobbyist and Clinton supporter Steve Elmendorf. "He never gets distracted by any of the chatter or Beltway stuff," adds Elmendorf, who, as then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's chief of staff, hired Plouffe to be his deputy in 1997.
Plouffe, 40, got an early taste of presidential politics working on the 1992 Democratic bid of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. After it ended, he managed the re-election campaign of Rep. John Olver of Massachusetts. Plouffe returned to his home state of Delaware in 1994 to manage the unsuccessful Senate bid of then-Attorney General Charles Oberly. He then went to New Jersey to run Robert Torricelli's victorious campaign for the Senate in 1996. Afterward, Torricelli's media consultant, Bob Shrum, urged Elmendorf to hire Plouffe. He moved over to run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2000 election.
After that cycle, he joined David Axelrod's Chicago-based consulting firm. In 2004, Plouffe took a leave of absence to serve as a senior adviser to Gephardt when the Missourian made his final run at the Democratic presidential nomination.
Although she isn't well known inside the Beltway, Jarrett is a fixture in Chicago politics and in the Obama family. Jarrett, 51, is a senior unpaid adviser to the campaign, and is a confidant of both the candidate and his wife, Michelle.
"She's totally loyal to both of them, can be totally honest with both of them," one Obama operative said. "She does not pretend to know something that she doesn't know, but she is a person in the room who is not reluctant to say exactly what she thinks to the candidate and the candidate's other advisers."
Jarrett's role as an honest broker in the campaign stems from her deep friendship with the candidate and his wife. Barack Obama met Jarrett in 1991 when she was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's deputy chief of staff and was interviewing Obama's then-fiancee for a job in City Hall. The three have been close ever since. A lawyer, Jarrett got her start in city government as a deputy corporation counsel for finance and development.
After serving at Daley's side, Jarrett was a commissioner in the city's Planning and Development Department and went on to chair the Chicago Transit Board, which oversees the city's public transportation system.
She is also a member of the University of Chicago's board of trustees and chairs its Medical Center Board. She is vice chair of Chicago 2016, the committee spearheading the city's bid for the Summer Olympics. Jarrett oversaw the Chicago Stock Exchange until stepping down last year to become CEO of Habitat Co., a real estate development and management firm. Some have mentioned her as an eventual mayoral candidate.
Jarrett has deep roots in the Windy City. Her maternal grandfather was Robert Taylor, who ran the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1940s. Her late father-in-law is former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett. She also has a familial link to Washington: Superlawyer and Bill Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan is her great-uncle.
Gibbs, the Obama campaign's communications director, has probably had more to do with helping the freshman senator successfully navigate the byways of "the club" than anyone except Obama's Senate chief of staff, Peter Rouse. That's no small accomplishment, notes a veteran Democratic Senate aide: Given the hype surrounding Obama's arrival in Washington, he could have easily stumbled, making a presidential bid more difficult. "The spotlight was stronger on him, and he didn't have a margin of error," the Senate veteran remarked. While not Obama's alter ego, Gibbs, 36, is the institutional memory of the team; he joined Obama as press secretary after he won his Senate primary and then served in that position in his Senate office.
Gibbs has experience on the presidential trail. Before he signed up with Obama, he was a press spokesman for John Kerry during the early phase of his 2004 campaign. Gibbs is also familiar with the nonstop thrust and parry of campaign coverage. He was director of communications for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2002 midterm elections, and he has served as a spokesman for high-profile Senate campaigns, including Debbie Stabenow's successful 2000 race in Michigan and then-Sen. Ernest Hollings's victorious 1998 re-election campaign in South Carolina.
Obama draws his economic advice largely from academics who fall within the broad Democratic mainstream of the dismal science, although they do have streaks of heterodoxy. Some are outsiders with few ties to the party's policy establishment in Washington, while others served in the Clinton administration or elsewhere in government.
The University of Chicago economist, who by most accounts is playing a dominant role in vetting Obama's policy proposals on a wide range of issues, had managed to keep his name out of the press -- until three weeks ago. That's when news leaked of a meeting that Goolsbee held with Canadian officials to explain his candidate's call to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. After Canadian officials said that the economist had dismissed the tough rhetoric as political posturing, the Clinton campaign used their account to argue that Obama was insincere or a secret advocate of free trade. Obama's team tried to counter by insisting that Goolsbee has played only a minor, unpaid role in the campaign, but this was disputed by other Democrats with knowledge of his influence.
Goolsbee himself certainly believes in free trade. Unlike Alan Blinder, Paul Krugman, and other left-leaning economic experts who are questioning the axiomatic belief among economists that free trade is always good, Goolsbee's faith hasn't been shaken, according to colleagues.
Those who know Goolsbee, 38, describe him as a committed centrist. He favors a variety of tax cuts and credits to accomplish Obama's major goals for health care, education, housing, and reducing poverty, and he is considered a fairly strong voice against deficit spending. Obama's choice of Goolsbee as his senior economic adviser is unusual because he has never worked in government. Goolsbee is not a political neophyte, however: He worked on Obama's 2004 Senate campaign, and he played a peripheral role in John Kerry's presidential campaign that year. The kerfuffle over his NAFTA comments may betray some lack of political experience, but colleagues say that Goolsbee is typically not caught off guard. "He is ambitious and political. I think he'd catch on in Washington very quickly," said a fellow economist who is not involved with any campaign.
Goolsbee has other skills to draw on if his role becomes more public -- he was a legendary debater at Yale University, where he won national competitions. Like most other economists, he's on record as favoring some things that few Democratic politicians would want to defend -- incentive pay for government workers, for example -- but nothing that would cause Obama bigger problems than the NAFTA flap.
Like Goolsbee, Liebman is known as an academic economist with a centrist streak. Unlike Goolsbee, however, he has Washington experience -- a stint in 1998 and 1999 as the White House aide coordinating the Clinton administration's Social Security proposals. Not much came of that process, but Liebman earned the respect of Democratic economic policy experts. On the Obama campaign's relatively small policy team, the 40-year-old Liebman serves as the resident expert on tax and fiscal policy, as well as on Social Security and other entitlement programs.
A professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Liebman has a reputation for avoiding stark ideological positions and preferring empiricism to rhetoric. Although he has advocated a balanced approach to Social Security reform that includes raising payroll taxes, he has also produced research showing that such an increase would reduce employment, thus wiping out half of the revenue to be gained. In a Newsweek article earlier this year that tried to identify a "post-Baby Boomer" approach to economics, Liebman supported using monetary policy to manipulate the economy.
Christina and David Romer
The Romers, a married couple, often do research and take on academic responsibilities as a team. Christina Romer is 49; her husband is 50. As professors at the University of California (Berkeley), they are well-known macroeconomists -- experts on the workings of the U.S. economy -- who jointly hold one of six spots on the academic committee of economists that decides when recessions begin and end. They are both steeped in the history of the country's economy and have recently produced a series of papers looking at the causes and effects of most of the major changes in tax policy in the last 100 years.
At the same time that Obama is calling for higher income taxes on people making $250,000 or more, the Romers have found that tax increases are generally bad for economic growth and that they primarily discourage investment -- the supply-side argument that conservatives use to justify tax cuts for the rich. On the other hand, the Romers have shredded the conservative premise that tax cuts eventually force spending reductions ("starving the beast"). Instead, they concluded that tax reductions lead only to one thing -- offsetting tax increases to recover lost revenue.
Tarullo worked for Bill Clinton for six years, the last three in the White House as the president's point man on international economic policy. Soon after Obama was elected to the Senate, Tarullo met him at one of those Washington gabfests where wonks break bread with the powerful. The discussion focused on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Tarullo opposed and Obama ultimately voted against.
"I was attracted by his unusual combination of passionate aims and calm demeanor," Tarullo recalls. "And I became convinced he had a rare capacity for leadership that the country will need in the years ahead."
Tarullo, 55, teaches law at Georgetown University and is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. He joined Obama's advisory team in December 2006 and is the go-to guy on currency, foreign investment, and trade. With a book coming out this spring on the need for tighter regulation of banks, Tarullo is also involved in campaign policy discussions about financial regulation and the subprime-mortgage crisis. But so far, the intensity of Tarullo's interest in banking regulation is not reflected in the campaign.
The 40 or so members of the campaign's Immigration Policy Advisory Committee come from diverse ethnic and professional backgrounds. The advisers range from immigration advocates to business executives; academics and lawyers are particularly well represented. Many committee members have substantial government experience.
Committee head Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a law professor at Stanford University, said that the advisers' common thread is a belief that progress on immigration reform requires "a certain kind of dialogue" -- not a fight -- that includes Democrats, Republicans, and independents; is intellectually honest; and recognizes the need to work across government jurisdictions and policy areas. "I think a lot of us on this committee would like to make a difference," Cuéllar said.
In addition to Cuéllar and lawyer Preeta Bansal, Obama's top advisers include Jennifer Chacón, a law professor at the University of California (Davis); Robert Bach, a former executive associate commissioner of what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Tara Magner, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center; and Marc Rosenblum, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans.
A veteran of President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, Cuéllar, now 35, was a top Treasury Department official from 1997 to 1999. Cuéllar, who goes by "Tino," also advises Obama on criminal justice and national security issues, as well as on outreach to Latino voters.
Like Obama, he believes that comprehensive immigration reform must go beyond addressing border security and the status of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants to confronting the current system's bureaucratic failings, providing job opportunities for American workers, promoting economic development in Latin America, and determining "how our immigration policy reflects our values and needs as Americans." Cuéllar, who joined the Obama campaign in April 2007, brings expertise on the regulatory side of immigration and international security, as well as what he calls a "passion" for refugee policy.
Obama's No. 2 immigration adviser sees her role as framing the issues to "recognize the diversity of the immigrant community," both legal and illegal. Bansal, a 42-year-old partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York City, is a 1993-96 veteran of the Clinton White House and Justice Department. Her path first crossed Obama's at Harvard Law School, although it was mutual friends who brought her to the campaign.
Bansal became familiar with Obama's foreign-policy work through her service on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. She shares the candidate's emphasis on expanding legal immigration, especially jobs-based immigration, although Obama has also fought for placing a continued priority on family reunification.
The influential Bansal advises the senator on international human rights, legal issues, foreign policy, women's issues, and outreach to Asian-Americans. Obama "is able to advance progressive principles, but he's not one of these starry-eyed liberals," she says. "With him, two plus two equals five, not four. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts."
"Mainstreamers." "Centrists." "Non-ideologues." These words tend to pop up in descriptions of Obama's security and intelligence advisers -- words that arguably help a candidate who is derided by his rivals as inexperienced. By recruiting eminences grises such as Tony Lake and young, skilled post-Cold War diplomats such as Susan Rice, the campaign appears eager to reassure voters that Obama, with his conspicuous, or at least relative, lack of foreign-policy experience would be surrounded by seasoned hands as commander-in-chief.
Many of Obama's advisers served in the Clinton State Department or on the National Security Council. Philip Gordon and Ivo Daalder are two notables. Both are now with the Brookings Institution, as are at least three other advisers. Pentagon veterans include Richard Danzig, who was Clinton's Navy secretary; Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration, a 32-year veteran of the Air Force; and Lawrence Korb, who served as an assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration.
But policy experience is no guarantee of political grace. In the past few weeks, Obama has suffered from embarrassing public gaffes by two advisers. Rice, in response to Hillary Clinton's TV ads about "red phone" calls at 3 a.m., admitted that Obama had no experience handling such crises -- but contended that neither did Clinton nor John McCain, since none of the three had been president. And Samantha Power, an academic and author, had to step down as one of Obama's closest confidants after she called Clinton a "monster" during an interview.
One of Obama's top foreign-policy and national security advisers, Lake was once closely associated with President Clinton, having served as national security adviser from 1993 to 1997, and as the president's envoy for negotiations that ended the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The 68-year-old has advised a number of Democratic presidents and candidates since the 1970s, in a diplomatic career that stretches back 45 years. He and Obama met in Chicago in 2003, and Lake came aboard as a key adviser in early 2007.
Like Obama, Lake opposed the invasion of Iraq. He has since become a central defender of some of Obama's more controversial foreign-policy positions. When Hillary Clinton called Obama "irresponsible" and "naive" for agreeing, in a debate, to meet "separately without precondition" with leaders of Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, among others, Lake came to his defense. "A great nation and its president should never fear negotiating with anyone," Lake declared in a post-debate memo. Still, Lake and other advisers may have cringed at that and others of Obama's unequivocal assertions, such as his stated willingness to send U.S. forces into Pakistan to root out Al Qaeda without first asking that government's permission.
Rice, 43, Obama's other key adviser on national security, advanced rapidly through the diplomatic ranks at the State Department in the 1990s and was seared by the experience of the Rwandan genocide. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen," she said in a 2000 interview with the alumni magazine of her alma mater, Stanford University. "It makes you mad.... It makes you know that even if you're the last lone voice and you believe you're right, it is worth every bit of energy you can throw into it." In 1997, she became assistant secretary of State for African affairs, after serving as President Clinton's Africa adviser on the National Security Council.
Rice began her career at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and is currently on leave from the Brookings Institution. She met Obama during his 2004 Senate campaign and has said that she was drawn to his "remarkably broad and deep grasp of the key foreign-policy challenges of the day."
Rice is known for her bluntness. "I guess you could say I'm plainspoken," she told Stanford magazine. "I can be diplomatic when I have to be. But I don't have a lot of patience for B.S."
Brennan, the president and chief executive officer of the Analysis Corp., an intelligence contractor in McLean, Va., began advising the Obama campaign on intelligence and counter-terrorism at Tony Lake's request. A 25-year CIA veteran, Brennan became the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004, and he now chairs the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a professional association. He first traveled to the Middle East in the 1970s, studying in Egypt, and he has spent a good portion of his career on regional issues. He ran the CIA's terrorism analysis during the Persian Gulf War and then became the daily intelligence briefer at the White House. From 1996 to 1999, he served in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as the CIA's chief of station.
Brennan, 52, thinks that President Bush should have moved to ratchet down the extraordinary intelligence measures taken immediately after the September 11 attacks. After the heat of 9/11 dissipated a bit, the administration "should have embarked to engage meaningfully with the [congressional] oversight committees and the judiciary to put in place ... programs for the longer term," Brennan told National Journal.
Like Obama, he favors a combination of public diplomacy and the option of military action to address national security threats. But the two differ on the controversial question of immunity for telecommunications companies that helped the government covertly monitor calls after 9/11. Brennan favors immunity, but Obama voted to strip retroactive immunity from the Senate intelligence bill, arguing that the matter should be settled in court.
Obama's core environment and energy advisers come from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Like the candidate, they favor federal controls on greenhouse-gas emissions and greater emphasis on developing clean sources of energy. But his green-team members have spent their careers forging partnerships between environmental interests and business, not hugging trees. Many of them were attracted to Obama because of his conviction that environmental goals can be compatible with the needs of his home state's coal, farm, and nuclear industries.
Almost all of Obama's top environment and energy advisers have degrees from Harvard, although none attended Harvard Law School with him. The Washington insiders and outsiders who make up his environmental lineup include Daniel Esty, an environmental law professor at Yale who was at the Environmental Protection Agency during the George H.W. Bush administration; Daniel Kammen, an energy and public policy professor at the University of California (Berkeley); and Robert Sussman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who spent 10 years practicing environmental law at Latham & Watkins, and was at EPA during the Clinton administration.
The campaign's official environment and energy policy committee is headed by Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based nonprofit established in 2007 by four former Senate majority leaders. The group focuses on developing bipartisan solutions to national security, health care, energy, agriculture, and transportation problems. Before taking that post, Grumet, 41, was executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a coalition of industry, academic, and environmental representatives focused on promoting environmentally friendly energy policies. The commission has since been folded into the policy center.
Grumet met Obama in 2005, after the Illinois Democrat was elected to the Senate. He worked with Obama on his collaboration with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., on strengthening federal fuel-economy standards for cars. Grumet said he was impressed with Obama's eagerness to forge compromises with Republicans and other interests involved in the debate. "Having been frustrated in this town for several years with the heroic rhetoric on oil dependence and then the total lack of policy progress, I thought [Obama's approach] was the way that you can make real progress," Grumet said.
Among Obama's top environmental advisers, Learner has the longest track record with the Illinois Democrat. Learner, 52, is executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based advocacy group. He linked up with Obama in the early 1990s, when Obama had just finished law school and Learner was general counsel at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a Chicago-based law and policy center. "I got to know Michelle Obama and Barack Obama as public-spirited, public-interest lawyers in Chicago who were looking to make a difference," Learner recalls. "Everybody recognized that they were tremendously talented."
In 1996, Learner joined Obama's successful campaign for the Illinois state Senate, and he worked with him on early efforts to require state utilities to generate some of their electricity from renewable resources. Learner says that the renewable-electricity bill adopted last year by the Illinois Legislature was built on Obama's original proposals. He also worked on Obama's U.S. Senate race.
Loy says he first noticed Obama in 2004, when Obama gave his celebrated keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. After Obama's election to the Senate, Loy began raising money for his presidential race and has since become one of the campaign's top environmental advisers. Loy argues that Obama is the best candidate to break the stalemates on energy and environmental issues. "In our system, it is not enough to just elect a new president," Loy said. "As president, you need to be able to operate in a way that gets things done. And that requires both the personality and the history and an attitude that Barack Obama has. He has an amazing ability to work across the aisle and attract voters that are not your standard reliable Democratic voters."
Loy was an impressive addition to the campaign. The 79-year-old pillar of the environmental community serves on the boards of several national green groups. He held State Department posts during the Clinton, Carter, and Johnson administrations, and he spent 14 years as president of the German Marshall Fund. Loy's public service stint followed a long career in corporate America.
Obama's message that lowering health care costs is an essential first step to getting nearly every American insured is one that fits his top health care advisers well. Indeed, two of the three are based in Massachusetts and, thus, have firsthand knowledge of how high costs nearly killed that state's landmark universal coverage plan. Massachusetts last year became the first state to require nearly every resident to have health insurance, but the public resisted when premium prices were more expensive than forecast. The Massachusetts experience, Obama's top health care advisers say, reinforced a message that they -- as a team -- have delivered before: All three helped John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign develop a proposal to lower health care costs. They have Washington experience, are established and well respected in Democratic and academic circles, and have worked on other campaigns with advisers who this year lined up behind different candidates. "A lot of us have worked together. It turned out the health policy world is not enormously large," said David Cutler, professor of applied economics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. In addition to Obama's health-specific advisers, two of his top economic advisers -- Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Jeffrey Liebman, a professor of public policy at Harvard University -- helped craft Obama's health proposal.
A professor of applied economics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Cutler is no stranger to Washington. Obama's top health care adviser served on the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council during the Clinton administration, and he helped develop the Clintons' failed universal health care proposal in the early 1990s. Cutler also worked on health care blueprints for Democratic presidential candidates Bill Bradley in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
Although he's in Obama's camp, Cutler isn't a critic of Hillary Clinton's current health care package. "If you said to me that Senator Obama was never going to run and, 'What do you think about Clinton's plan?' I would say, 'It's a terrific plan,' " Cutler said. He added: "Whoever the Democratic nominee is will have the support on health care of the entire policy community on the left. I don't know of anyone who's uncomfortable in some fundamental way with what is in the plans." Still, Cutler, 42, maintains that it's critically important to lower costs before mandating that everyone have coverage, as Clinton has proposed. "If you make insurance affordable and accessible, you will get to 98 or 99 percent of covered people," he predicts. "Maybe after that you can come in with a mandate for small pockets of people."
When Blumenthal isn't developing health care proposals for Democratic presidential contenders (this is his fourth go-round), the physician is seeing patients, writing books, teaching at Harvard, and promoting his health reform ideas in Washington. Blumenthal, 59, helped develop a health care proposal in 1988 for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis that focused on getting all employers to offer insurance. He worked on health care policy for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., during his presidential run in 1980, and for John Kerry in 2004. Blumenthal, director of the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine and policy at Harvard, also helped the Dukakis and Kerry campaigns retool their health care proposals for the general election.
When Obama declared for president, Cutler, who was already working with the senator, contacted Blumenthal. On the Obama campaign, Blumenthal has advocated a strong commitment to funding and adopting health information technology, and Obama has proposed spending $10 billion a year for five years to move toward standards-based electronic health care systems for doctors and hospitals. (Clinton has proposed spending $3 billion a year for several years.) Blumenthal is writing a book that examines what former presidents have proposed and accomplished in the way of health care access and cost containment. He hopes that it will be out in time to influence whatever health care initiatives Congress and the new president pursue next year. "In American politics, you elect a president, not a plan," he said.
The Obama campaign came looking for Altman specifically to get the veteran health care economist to resurrect a proposal he had drawn up for John Kerry's presidential campaign. (Altman and Obama policy strategist Heather Higginbottom had worked together on Kerry's campaign.) The proposal would have the federal government reimburse employers for some catastrophic health care costs and would require employers to use that money to reduce workers' premiums. It has become a major selling point of Obama's health care plan, and it marks one of the few distinctions between his proposal and Hillary Clinton's.
Altman, the 70-year-old dean of Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, helped develop a plan for President Nixon that would have required most employers to buy insurance for their workers and would have created a federal health plan that anyone could purchase. He served on President Clinton's transition team but declined to participate in the Clintons' health care reform effort in the early 1990s. "It was too big, a total restructuring of our whole health system," he says. Altman praises Hillary Clinton's current health care plan, however, and notes that it resembles Obama's proposal. One difference he supports is Obama's wait-and-see approach to mandating that everyone have health insurance.
Obama doesn't need advisers to prep him on constitutional theory. He lectured on the topic at the University of Chicago after moving to the Windy City in 1991 upon receiving his Harvard law degree magna cum laude. He is at ease fielding questions from voters who oppose President Bush's expansive interpretations of executive powers on issues ranging from torture to habeas corpus to war powers.
Nonetheless, Obama has tapped into his networks at Chicago and Harvard for legal advisers -- for policy advice and for counsel on campaign matters. His University of Chicago roots help explain his philosophical preference for incentives rather than mandates, a key difference between his plan for achieving universal health coverage and that of Hillary Clinton.
His Harvard advisers include heavy hitters in constitutional and criminal justice law, such as professors Martha Minow and Ronald Sullivan and former Harvard professor Christopher Edley Jr., now dean of the law school at the University of California (Berkeley). From beyond the ivory towers, Obama's legal thinkers include Eric Holder, deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration; and Cassandra Butts, a former Harvard classmate and now senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress, who has advised him on domestic policy.
Tribe remembers Obama as one of his best students in his 40 years of teaching constitutional law at Harvard. Tribe has argued three dozen cases before the Supreme Court, and he literally wrote the textbook on constitutional law used across the country. He argued Vice President Gore's side in Bush v. Gore, the Florida vote-counting case, before the Supreme Court in 2000, so it's no wonder that he is part of the team that Obama has assembled to respond to any voting irregularities or other legal issues that arise in the campaign.
A leading liberal scholar, Tribe, 66, is also an active member of an ad hoc group of policy experts who advise Obama on habeas corpus and other constitutional concerns, as well as on increasing Americans' access to the justice system. Tribe told National Journal that he and other legal affairs advisers worked on a set of policy proposals -- but that Obama's own ideas were better. "He's very interested always in finding common ground," Tribe said. "It's not so much finding the midpoint on a line where people are arranged from left to right, but finding a way to get an angle that's perpendicular -- or comes at the line from a different angle."
Another Obama-professor-turned-adviser is Ogletree, 55, who has been at Harvard since 1985. Before that, he was a District of Columbia public defender, which shaped his professorial focus on civil rights and criminal justice. He wrote a book on school desegregation, and he counseled Anita Hill when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Ogletree has advised Obama on reforming the criminal-justice system as well on constitutional issues. He is a member of the Obama campaign's black advisory council, which also includes Cornel West, who teaches African-American studies at Princeton University. The group formed after Obama skipped a conference on African-American issues in Hampton, Va., to announce his presidential candidacy in Illinois.
From the University of Chicago, law professor Cass Sunstein, 53, joins Tribe and Ogletree in advising Obama on an ad hoc basis. Sunstein is headed to Harvard later this year after 27 years at Chicago. Earlier, he worked at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Sunstein's stint at OLC -- the executive branch's legal advice center -- gave him a special appreciation of presidential prerogatives that can help his former law school colleague develop nuanced positions on separation-of-powers issues.
Many Democrats have railed against Bush's use of presidential signing statements, for example. Like Sunstein, Obama has not rejected the use of signing statements outright; both argue that as long as the statements don't purport to overturn law, they can be useful in explaining how a president intends to carry out the will of Congress. "There's nothing wrong with signing statements as such," Sunstein told National Journal. He also shares Obama's University of Chicago-honed preference for incentives rather than mandates. Sunstein and fellow Chicago professor Richard Thaler have written Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, a book published this month that expounds on this theme.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that top immigration adviser Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar opposes the fence being constructed on the U.S.-Mexico border. National Journal deeply regrets the error.)
Staff Correspondents Lisa Caruso, Brian Friel, Shane Harris, Margaret Kriz, John Maggs, Marilyn Werber Serafini, and Bruce Stokes contributed to this article.