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In Obama's decision-making, a wide range of influences
"He wants advisers who have different perspectives to share those differing perspectives," Summers said. "And he is very careful to ask people who haven't spoken up whether they have a perspective they want to share."
Colin Powell (and other eminences grises)
Obama met quietly several times during the campaign with retired Gen. Colin Powell, who ultimately crossed party lines to endorse him. Since the election, Powell has seen Obama at the White House about four times, aides said, sometimes slipping in for meetings without the knowledge of top National Security Council staff members.
What do the men discuss? Powell declined to say. But he described Obama's demeanor in examining problems as thorough and precise.
"He's a lawyer, and he thinks like a lawyer, makes decisions like a lawyer," Powell said in an interview. "He likes to pick apart an argument, and I appreciate that."
Obama values Powell's status as an elder statesman who is unfazed by stepping into the Oval Office, senior aides said. Powell played an important role last fall in helping the president not be bowed by his critics, such as former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who accused Obama of "dithering" on his Afghan policy.
"There are people who are very wise, very experienced and very sensible, and I think for the president, General Powell fits that category," Axelrod said. "I don't think he's in constant contact with him, but at pivotal moments, he's reached out to him as a sounding board, as he's had to make some difficult decisions."
Other prominent figures who White House aides said also fit that category: the financier Warren Buffett, a member of the Washington Post Board of Directors, and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. The Catholic former archbishop of Washington has had several private and sometimes unreported meetings, talking with the president about the Middle East and health care.
The president has retold their stories so often they are now familiar figures around the White House: the Green Bay, Wis., woman with breast cancer who is worried that her health insurance's lifetime cap will kick in soon. The small-business owner who could not get a bank loan, despite having a solid business plan. The family facing foreclosure because the bank would not modify a mortgage loan. Aides say time and time again, at meetings, Obama brings up these stories, which sometimes affect policy.
"I don't think you can overstate -- or should not underestimate -- the degree to which his interactions with people, letters, interchanges, motivate him in all of this," Axelrod said.
After Obama met Laura Klitzka in Green Bay, he returned to the White House and recounted her struggles, as a way to motivate aides who had grown pessimistic about the prospects for health-care changes. Another time, Obama carried onboard Air Force One the letter from the small-business owner frustrated by his inability to get a loan. The tale was woven into the fabric of Obama's small-business policies, Jarrett said, leading to changes in the administration's lending initiatives.
"It wasn't some economic scholar who was presenting the idea. The problem was identified by an everyday American," Jarrett said.
At times, he has turned the Treasury Department into a Better Business Bureau, demanding that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner respond to -- and help fix -- problems reported by his citizen letter-writers.