In the spring of 2007, long before Sarah Palin became a feminist icon, before Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers reared their unreconstructed heads, before Hillary Clinton ever questioned his readiness to be president, Barack Obama’s greatest nemesis was a 29-year-old paralegal named Joe Anthony. Anthony had attracted tens of thousands of fans to a MySpace page he’d set up for Obama—a testament to the legions of new voters the candidate was inspiring. But, back in Chicago, all Anthony’s site inspired was indigestion. The Obama brass worried about ceding control of the campaign’s image to the online hordes. And so, after a brief attempt at coordination, they had MySpace put Anthony out of business.
In the annals of U.S. history, Gettysburg this was not. But the episode was a harbinger of things to come. The campaign spent much of the primaries stiffing prominent blogs and online groups while vacuuming up their readers and members. This spring, after Obama’s claim on the nomination became more or less ironclad, the campaign discouraged donors from giving to the 527 groups that had flourished since the late 1990s—effectively defunding much of the party’s independent infrastructure—and asked those same 527s not to buy TV ads. (The campaign wanted donors concentrating dollars on Obama.) Then, in June, Obama announced he was moving many Democratic National Committee operations to Chicago, an unprecedented swallowing of the party apparatus.
The consolidation had some obvious short-term effects. For example, it made the party’s message far more cohesive—and its mechanics more efficient—than ever before. (Back in 2004, the Kerry campaign frequently duplicated the efforts of the DNC and various independent groups.) But the consequences extend far beyond the recent election. Simply put, the president-elect has led a revolution within the Democratic Party, replacing an establishment long dominated by Clintonites—and, more recently, by progressive bloggers and billionaires—with a new establishment, one constructed in his own ubiquitous image. This list represents our attempt at making sense of the new hierarchy— your guide to the men and women who will dominate progressive politics in the Age of Obama. (A note about methodology: We fashioned this list from dozens of background conversations with the consultants, bureaucrats, politicos, pollsters, and strategists whose livelihoods depend on their sixth sense of the Washington power structure. There are sure to be quibbles with the ranking—and perhaps some of the names. But it represents, in the main, a broad professional consensus. That said, let the carping begin!) Just consider a few ways the new White House will be able to bypass the traditional intermediaries. As of Election Day, Obama had north of three million intensely loyal donors and perhaps some ten to 15 million online supporters, most of whose point of entry into politics was the Obama campaign itself. Whenever the new president decides to engage on a particular issue—health care, anyone?—Robert Gibbs, his likely counselor or communications director, and David Plouffe, his would-be political director, will be able to instantly summon a millions-strong army to mau-mau legislators and the media.
For that matter, the press may suffer a fate worse than mau-mauing. The Obama campaign’s grassroots strength made it less reliant on the press than any in recent memory. It’s hard to imagine that changing once you add the megaphone of the White House. Shut out and with no Bush to bash, stalwarts of the emerging lefty media—such as the employees of msnbc president Phil Griffin—could easily turn on their hero.
Or take fund-raising. It’s been estimated that, if Obama wanted to back a statewide candidate, he could raise $3 million with a single e-mail. That’s against anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million from MoveOn.org, the reigning online champion, according to the blogger Matt Stoller.
Already, it’s hard to find a newly elected Democrat in Washington who doesn’t partly owe his seat to Obama’s money and machine. Even Democrats from conservative Southern districts—a perennial nuisance to incoming presidents—owe some of their expanded ranks to the massive black turnout Obama attracted. How do these people resist when Obama (or, more precisely, Obama fixers like Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse) comes looking for votes?
It’s certainly tough to imagine them feeling overly solicitous of the Capitol’s current powerbrokers—people like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. Instead, it will be men like Rahm Emanuel and Dick Durbin—legislators with longstanding ties to Obamaland—who chart the party’s course on Capitol Hill. (As of this writing, Emanuel is the favorite to be White House chief of staff.) The Old Washington dons who matter most under Obama are likely to be those refugees from the establishment who signed up with him early. The inner circle of former congressional leader Tom Daschle chafed at the way the Clintonites clung to power deep into the Bush era. Daschle endorsed Obama in February of 2007, and now he’s a candidate for a top administration job. John Kerry’s closest supporters still seethe at the slights they believe he suffered at the hands of the Clintons. Many of Kerry’s top fund-raisers and policy aides now populate Obamaland. The senator himself, who gave Obama a critical endorsement in January, is a candidate for secretary of state.
Which is not to say the old establishment will be shut out entirely. Far from it. The federal government is simply too vast, and Obama’s existing reservoir of manpower too shallow, to govern without them. (Obama is distinctly lacking in cronies he could plausibly install in the top echelons of his administration.) Indeed, if Obama fails to impose his will on Washington, the labyrinthine bureaucracy will likely be the place he falls short. He’d hardly be the first self-proclaimed outsider to overlook how a well-connected deputy assistant secretary can bring an entire administration to its knees.
The Clintonites in particular will have outsized influence in Obama’s bureaucratic ranks, given how much of the party’s economics and foreign policy know-how resides with them. That helps explain why Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two protégés of Robert Rubin, Clinton’s economic godfather, are leading candidates to head the Treasury Department. And why former Clintonites like James Steinberg and Greg Craig may end up running Obama’s national security apparatus.
The catch is that the reborn Clintonites have largely accommodated themselves to the Obama era, rather than vice versa. For example, in the ’90s, Rubinomics meant balanced budgets and freer trade. Summers has spent the last few years sounding the alarm about wage inequality and raising questions about the current system of international trade.
In many ways, Obama’s takeover represents another triumph of the campaign’s central strategic insight: that it’s always easier to tilt the landscape to your advantage than to charge into unfriendly terrain. In early 2007, the Obama brain trust realized it had little chance of besting Hillary Clinton in Iowa if traditional caucus-goers were the only ones who showed. So it resolved to expand the electorate by tens of thousands of more sympathetic Iowans—young people, liberals, independents.
In the same way, Obama hasn’t seized power from the traditional Democratic establishment so much as created a new on-the-ground reality—almost ten million newly registered voters, in addition to all those donors and online supporters—that has remade American politics. That rustling sound you hear is the last of the last of the old-time party hacks rushing to get on board.
By TNR Staff