Low-Profile Aide Messina Tackles Obama's Tough Political Problems

The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut chats with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina about working long hours, multitasking and leadership.Video by Emily Kotecki/washingtonpost.com
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

Holed up in a windowless West Wing office, Jim Messina is working on his usual assignment: fixing President Obama's problems.

The exact nature of that task changes from day to day. In January, when tax troubles surfaced, first threatening Timothy F. Geithner's nomination, Obama asked Messina, his deputy chief of staff, to smooth over the situation on Capitol Hill. (He did.)

As the $787 billion stimulus was moving through Congress last week, Obama ordered Messina to devise a strategy for tracking the spending across agencies.

And after the withdrawal of nominees to head the departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services, Obama assigned Messina to come up with a list of more names for him to review, a process that is underway.

Messina, 39, has one of the lowest profiles of any key player in the top tiers of the Obama administration. But he has already become known as a key "fixer" in the operation -- both because of his extensive ties to political operatives and lawmakers, especially in the Senate, and because of his relentless focus of purpose that mirrors that of his immediate superior, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Messina's most renowned feat on Capitol Hill was straight out of Emanuel's no-holds-barred playbook, and it came shortly after President George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. With Democrats still in the minority and frustrated by their inability to block the Republican president or his congressional allies, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) tapped Messina's boss, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), to run a strategic effort to defeat a top legislative priority of Bush's second term, the partial privatization of Social Security.

As Baucus's chief of staff, Messina helped craft a message that was simple and straightforward, arguing that the Bush plan was risky and would cut benefits. His critics in the opposition party saw it as misleading at best, but it worked. The plan stalled quickly, and its defeat was credited by some for setting the Republicans on the path to losing control of Congress in the next midterm elections.

"Messina stepped in and delivered a beat-down sandwich, and in my view, it was the beginning of the end of Bush's approval ratings," said Barrett Kaiser, Baucus's communications director and a close friend of Messina.

Messina's colleagues see similarities between him and Emanuel, the sharp-elbowed former Chicago congressman who now sets the frenetic daily pace at the White House, beginning each day with a lightning-round meeting at 7:30 a.m. In many ways, Messina is a taller, quieter -- but no less aggressive -- version of his boss.

"They're similar," said Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "They're very intense, and they both like to make quick decisions. They're both very hard-working, and they both have a rough sense of humor."

David Plouffe, Obama's former campaign manager, said Messina is "not quite as colorful as Rahm" but shares his hard-charging approach, and is "not the kind of guy to say, 'We'll get to that tomorrow.' "

Other co-workers say he has a long memory for disloyalty -- and does not tolerate ineptitude, or being crossed.

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