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.
"He's a little gentler than Rahm," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), for whom Messina also worked. "But if he assigns somebody to do something and it's not done, that person is definitely going to hear about it."
Messina doesn't hide his affection and admiration for Emanuel. "Rahm is a machine," Messina said in an interview, acknowledging that he and his boss "could have a competition for who cusses more."
His portfolio is sprawling: While Mona Sutphen, the other deputy, handles the administration's policies, Messina supervises the operational and political shops, overseeing the White House's interactions with the Secret Service, the scheduling office, the advance teams and the public liaison. He leads a meeting each day at 5 p.m. to make sure the operations are coordinated.
In the morning meeting, the running joke is "What is Jim dealing with now?" one aide said, noting that whatever it is must be the biggest logistical hurdle facing the administration that day.
Like the rest of the staff, Messina has a staggering schedule, starting with phone calls before 7 a.m. on his way into work and ending at 9 p.m., when he heads to the gym for a workout each night.
After years in Montana politics -- most notably as Baucus's top aide and as a below-the-radar strategic adviser to Jon Tester's triumphant Senate campaign in 2006 -- Messina was hired on to the Obama campaign in June 2008, after the primaries, making him a latecomer by the standards of that tight-knit operation. His first accomplishment was simply finding a way to fit into the insular campaign structure, gaining the confidence of top advisers and an increasing share of the workload.
He functioned then much as he does now, absorbing problems and confronting them, overseeing aspects of political research and the ground game. Plouffe said that as the summer of 2008 wore on, he relied increasingly on Messina to make sure the operational side of the campaign ran well day-to-day, so that he, as campaign manager, could step back to do more strategic work.
One example, Plouffe said, was the search for Obama's running mate. "For a while there, our research on the prospective vice presidential candidates was not in as good a shape as it could have been," Plouffe said. Messina launched a daily conference call and "did a great job in very short order of getting that in order."
"Even though he was new, people started coming into his office within a week and asking him to fix things," said Plouffe, who did not join the administration but still talks to Messina every day.
In January, Messina returned to Capitol Hill as an emissary of the Obama administration, an illustration that the White House, despite its claims to outsider status, relies heavily on veteran Washington players to help move its agenda.
When vetters learned that Geithner had not fully paid his taxes -- but before the news became public -- Obama dispatched Messina to see Baucus, his former boss, who was in charge of the Treasury secretary's confirmation process. Obama wanted to ensure that the tax issue would not be an impediment to confirmation.
Messina brought the ultimate insider's advantage to the table as he negotiated Geithner's fate: He and Baucus are such close friends that they describe it as a "father-son" relationship. Every two weeks, they meet for dinner and a glass of wine at Bistro Bis, an upscale restaurant in the Hotel George on Capitol Hill. But their meeting on Geithner put them on different sides. Ultimately, Geithner was approved -- in no small part because he had backing from Baucus.
"He called me afterwards and said, 'Wasn't that a little weird?' because we were on opposite sides of the table,' " Messina said of his meeting with Baucus, Geithner and the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa). "Max is like my father. I'm closer to Max than I am almost anyone."
Messina's soft spots for his friends are matched by a legendarily rough approach to his enemies. While he has not yet sent a dead fish to a political opponent -- an infamous episode from two decades ago that is considered the epitome of the Emanuel style -- "I did have someone tell me this week they hope I died," Messina related proudly. (The death wish, he said, came from a job applicant to the Obama White House whom Messina turned down.)
Messina, who is single, has also discovered a side benefit to working for the president. When he brought a date to a gala at Ford's Theatre this month, Obama stopped by to chat.
"It turns out the president is a really good wingman," Messina said. Obama, he said, "stopped by and said, 'Messina, you look pretty good when you clean up.' "