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Obama Central: Peace, Harmony and Deep Secrecy

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The Post's Anne E. Kornblut reports on what it's like to work at Barack Obama's busy Chicago campaign headquarters. Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

CHICAGO -- The bustling Obama headquarters on North Michigan Avenue invites comparisons to a start-up, teeming with young people in jeans clutching BlackBerrys as they walk through the halls. Yet in Democratic circles, another, potentially less welcome, parallel is being made: to the tight-knit and tight-lipped organization eight years ago of George W. Bush.

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Decisions are guarded with extreme secrecy, none more so than the upcoming vice presidential selection, and that has occasionally irked members of Congress. In recent days, as Republicans publicly accused Sen. Barack Obama of appearing presumptuous during his presidential-style trip to Europe, Democrats privately expressed concerns that Obama has become too Chicago-centric, relying on his inner circle rather than a broader group that encourages input from Washington and elsewhere.

"One of the great strengths of this campaign from the very beginning has been the cohesion, the sense of camaraderie, and the lack of drama," said David Axelrod, a leader of the no-drama movement with his casual wardrobe and low-key demeanor.

"That is highly unusual in national campaigns," Axelrod added. "And one of the challenges moving forward is to expand and bring in more talent, people from other campaigns and other places, and still maintain that culture we began with. I think it's happening. But it's a process, and it fights the normal physics of national politics."

The current challenge is how to retain that cohesion while expanding to include former Clinton advisers and how to accommodate a chattier group of Washington insiders. It was certainly not the norm inside the Ballston offices of Obama's main rival during the primaries. When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign was collapsing under the weight of outsize egos and infighting, the Obama team watched from afar and patted itself on the back for being different.

Now, the two teams are attempting a partial merger, while adding players from across the Democratic spectrum -- and, soon, a vice presidential nominee -- just as Obama's focus is shifting toward winning a wider range of voters.

Already, a new seating arrangement in the high-rise building tells part the story, as it now includes political combat veterans more accustomed to warring internal factions than the peace-and-harmony Obama vibe.

Until recently, there were almost no women in senior leadership inside the campaign. That changed with the end of the primaries: Anita Dunn came on as a senior adviser in the spring; and Stephanie Cutter, a former operative for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), arrived as chief of staff to Michelle Obama as the race entered general-election mode.

Patti Solis Doyle, ousted as the Clinton campaign manager earlier this year, has an office near Cutter. Sarah Hurwitz, until recently a speechwriter for Clinton, has moved into a small office space with Obama veterans Jon Favreau, Ben Rhodes and Adam Frankel.

Other newcomers are squeezing into rows of desks in the middle of the room: Christina Reynolds, a former aide to John Edwards, sits directly across from Hari Sevugan, formerly an operative for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). Several feet away sits Wendy Morigi, a national security expert deployed from the office of Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) last month. Many of the fresh faces moved to Chicago within the past few weeks and are still looking for apartments and sitting at temporary desks.

All were given the "no drama" speech before they were hired. "There are a whole series of games candidates play," said Dan Pfeiffer, an Obama veteran who was recently promoted to communications director. Obama, he said, "brooks none of that" and has "specifically sought out people who are going to play by those rules."

The hiring of Solis Doyle caused a distraction of the sort the Obama office is unaccustomed to: It was interpreted as a slap by Clinton, who had cut ties with her during the campaign, and it outraged some prominent women whom Obama hoped to win over in the general election. (The feelings still run hard: Clinton supporters have nicknamed her "Solis Disloyal.")


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