Obama Central: Peace, Harmony and Deep Secrecy

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.

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.")

Pfeiffer took exception to the comparison to the 2000 Bush campaign, which was located in Austin and was driven by Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Joe Allbaugh. Those three Bush devotees devised their own game plan, kept iron discipline and largely rejected advice from Washington. Still, Pfeiffer made no apologies for his own airtight shop.

"I don't know that we'd get T-shirts made that say it, but we take pride in not leaking, we take pride in not being a typical campaign," Pfeiffer said. The difference between the Obama discipline and the kind that Bush loyalists displayed in 2000, he said, is that "when all the layers got peeled back, they were actually leaking" and did not really get along -- Rove and Hughes, most notably, ended their terms in Washington barely on speaking terms. When it came to discipline, Pfeiffer said, "they were just being tactical about it."

While that approach appears to have served Obama well, it grates on some members of the party, particularly those in Congress, who were not with him from the outset.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill have complained that he is not inclusive enough. They gripe that he is running his own campaign in some states, rather than the traditional coordinated effort; that he is not focusing on working-class white voters as he had promised at the end of the primaries; and that he has taken sides in some House primaries.

To quell dissent, David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, went to Capitol Hill last month to give lawmakers a political briefing. Obama also met with House members last week. But several Democratic officials reported a persistent undercurrent of tension, which they attributed in part to the cloistered atmosphere of the Chicago team.

"There is a feeling now that 'we're going to win this thing,' and people are starting to talk about who is going to be what a few months from now," said one Democratic adviser, who is working closely with the Obama campaign but is not on staff. "The small-team atmosphere has changed, and that has caused some frictions on the inside."

Turmoil has been a trademark of Democratic politics over the past few election cycles. Kerry's senior management went through repeated upheavals and devolved into backbiting; four years earlier, Al Gore faced a similar melodrama. Even the Bill Clinton campaigns of 1992 and 1996 had their share of divisions, as huge personalities jockeyed for attention and the candidate's ear.

The Obama campaign has been marked by an opposite trend. Plouffe is understated to the point of sometimes being difficult to hear when he speaks. In the early days of the race, the central figures were cut from similar cloth: Robert Gibbs, a former Kerry aide who went to work for Obama in the Senate; Pfeiffer; Burton, another Kerry graduate with experience at the Democratic Congressional Committee; Pete Rouse, who was an aide to then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.); Paul Tewes; and Steve Hildebrand. All were low-key staffers with the focus that comes with working for losing candidates.

Some who have interacted with the campaign expressed astonishment at how smoothly it functions compared with other campaigns. "I'm amazed at the difference," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), adding that he had never seen such a level of organization in any presidential campaign, including his own.

Instead of asking someone to appear someplace "across the country" with less than 24 hours' notice, Richardson said the Obama campaign asks as much as a week in advance, providing transportation and help.

Behind the scenes is a quiet, mostly open office that is increasingly flush with advisers from all over the Democratic map.

"Based on the way we're all sitting, you can't tell where everybody fits in the hierarchy, and that's a good thing," said Josh Earnest, an Obama veteran who said he no longer recognizes everyone he encounters in the hallways. Earnest sits in a mixed section of new and old faces, including Tommy Vietor, a former Obama aide in Iowa, and Burton, whose "wall of front pages" from each day's newspapers -- compiled by two young aides who arrive at 3 a.m. to go through the clips -- is a key design element of their area.

A youthful atmosphere persists throughout the office: jeans are de rigueur, all the way up through the top ranks. Laptops sit on most desks. Happy hour happens at Houlihan's downstairs. Athletic jerseys given to Obama are pinned to one wall.

When Obama stopped in for a meeting a few days earlier, he first stopped to talk to the interns, reinforcing an egalitarian environment. There is no "war room" -- a feature that caught on in campaigns after it was so successful for Clinton in 1992, but that evolved into something of a gimmick. Almost all employees have been required to move to Chicago. There is almost no conference space. When a reporter visited last week, media adviser Erik Smith was conducting business on his cellphone in a corner. And even campaign manager Plouffe and Axelrod were seen conferring in the middle of a hallway.

Minutes later, Plouffe deferred to Pfeiffer when a reporter sought to stop him in the hallway for a few on-the-record quotes.

"Later? Please?" Pfeiffer pleaded apologetically, successfully deterring the interview.

Plouffe grinned. "This is why we're effective," he said.

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