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The O-List

The 30 People Who Matter Most

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, 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 isthe 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.

- Noam Scheiber

1. David Axelrod
Chief strategist, Obama campaign

At first, he professed no interest in trailing his guy to Washington. But that's increasingly hard to believe. That doesn't mean Obama's message manager will follow the Karl Rove path, surrendering his lucrative consulting business for an official post. He might take the James Carville tack: work for the DNC but be omnipresent in the Oval Office. Although Axelrod doesn't do policy, his knack for strategy will shapethe key decision of the administration: Will Obama go for broke or play it safe? And there's little doubt he'll always have four digits on his mind: 2012. 

2. Rahm Emanuel
House member, Illinois

He could be the Dick Cheney of the Obama administration—the heavy with his hands in everything. Like Cheney, Rahmbo is respected, feared, and a formidable wonk. Emanuel might make an attractive chief of staff because of his reputation for fierce loyalty and his ability to corral the House Democrats. Those in Congress who don't owe their jobs to him are terrified of him. That pick, like so much of Obama's world, would bear Axelrod's fingerprints: Ax signed the ketubah at Emanuel's wedding.

3. Valerie Jarrett
CEO, Habitat Co.; senior adviser, Obama campaign

The rap on Obama is that he's low on hardcore loyalists capable of serving in top positions. That's what makes Jarrett so essential. Duringthe campaign, they spoke daily—and she served as strategist, ambassador, and enforcer. With Obama's increasing reliance on old Washington—and Clinton—hands, he'll need at least one guardian of his interests in the room. There's talk of making her secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but trouble at some Habitat-managed housing projects could make her confirmation hearing messy. Obama is more likely to want her floating around the White House. 

4. Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House

If Obama fails early, the unruly House Democrats would be the most likely cause. Conservative Dems—and they are plentiful these days—will want Obama to balance his budgets; liberals will be aching for maximalism on all fronts; and 2010-focused worrywarts in the leadership will cry for caution. That means the fate of Obama's presidency will largely rest with Madame Speaker's disciplinary skills. Fortunately, she's a true pitbull with lipstick. More fixer and tactician than San Francisco idealist, she will haunt the backrooms, cutting deals and threatening to cut off legs.

5. Tom Daschle
Former Senate majority leader, South Dakota

The former majority leader didn't just bet early on Obama; he lent him his establishment imprimatur and his entire political operation, which proved to include some of the campaign's most innovative strategists. Since leaving the Senate, Daschle has turned himself into a health care maven. He may not have won the chief of staff job he so coveted—his wife's lobbying made for terrible optics—but he could still end up in the White House, or as secretary of Health and Human Services. Either way, he's sure to be among the central figures in shaping one of Obama's top priorities. (And his wife won't be hurting for clients.)

6. Larry Summers
Managing director, D.E. Shaw & Co.

The best economic mind in the party, his credibility with the Democratic base has grown in recent months. His must-read columns in theFinancial Times have evinced a leftward turn in his thinking. And, unlike Rubin, the financial meltdown actually reflects well upon his last tour in Washington. If Obama doesn't send him back to Treasury—that job could also go to his protégé, Tim Geithner—he might be called upon to replace Bernanke at the Fed in 2010.

7. General David Petraeus
Commander, U.S. Central Command

Petraeus is a master politician—hence the buzz about him running for the White House someday. For the past few months, he has been back-channeling to Obama, building a working relationship. It helps that their positions on both Afghanistan and Iraq have begun to converge. The surge's success has bolstered Petraeus's cred, so Obama will want the general's blessing for his strategy—or, at least, try to avoid a public confrontation with him. An antagonistic relationship would propel Petraeus to the top of the GOP's wish list for 2012. 

8. Joe Biden
Vice president-elect

Biden has eschewed the fool's errands that doom most vice presidents: Reinventing government! Regulatory reform! He has given himself a Cheney-size portfolio and wants to have the president's ear on everything. His most obvious area of interest will be foreign policy, where his views run more hawkish than Obama's. An interesting first test of Biden's clout: Can he find jobs for like-minded Democratic diplomats like Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross?

9. Robert Gibbs
Communications director, Obama campaign

If the press corps doesn't exactly love the guy, who cares? He has run a leakproof ship, won overwhelmingly positive coverage of his candidate, and proved a steely spinmeister on television. He should have Karen Hughes-like stature in the White House, as communications director or senior counselor. Gibbs joined up with Obama back in 2004, well before the hype began, and the laconic Southerner is famously fearless when dispensing advice to his boss.

10. David Plouffe
Manager, Obama campaign

Obamaland is a hegemonic power—it devours every institution it cannot control. Plouffe is the political geek who built it from scratch, with his savant-like knowledge of demographics and electoral rules. Now that Obama controls the lever of government, that campaign apparatus isn't going anywhere. He could become the DNC's new executive director—or run the White House political operation. Whether he's at 1600 or not, count on Plouffe to bolster the administration's legislative agenda by using Obama's massive donor base to reward friendly congressmen. 

11. John Podesta
President and CEO, Center for American Progress

How convenient that the head of the transition happens to have his own wonk-filled think tank! His Center for American Progress (CAP) has been prepping the talent and white papers for a Democratic administration for the past five years (see "The Shadow President," page 26, for more on CAP). Though the ex-Bill Clinton chief of staff has said he'll return to CAP after the transition, he'll have protégés in every corner ofthe administration. (That his brother is a top Democratic lobbyist earns him bonus power points.)

12. James Steinberg
Dean, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

You don't know him. But he could be the guy running your foreign policy—or, at least, the National Security Council. A veteran of the Clinton NSC, he doesn't court the press, write many op-eds, or even live in D.C. (He's been teaching in Texas for the last three years.) But he's a trusted technocrat whom Obama increasingly leans upon. If Kerry lands at State, he could be an important counterweight, pushing Obama in a more centrist direction.

13. Pete Rouse
Chief of staff, Obama's Senate office

After Tom Daschle's defeat in 2004, he gifted Obama his savviest veteran staffer—perhaps the most effective aide on the Hill. Rouse, a legendary workaholic, helped Obama navigate his brief time in the Senate with an eye toward launching his presidential bid. After he finishes overseeing the transition, Rouse will likely return to the Hill—this time as Obama's top lobbyist.

14/15. Jason Furman and Austan Goolsbee
Economic policy director and chief economic adviser, Obama campaign

The twin lobes of Obama's economic brain. Professor Goolsbee has the economic chops, but doesn't always get politics (witness his legendary NAFTA gaffe). Furman, a protégé of Robert Rubin, is the cream of the Democratic policy-wonk crop—and, unlike most other tax nerds, he's politically canny. Both are essentially centrists—Furman has defended free trade and even (sacre bleu!) Wal-Mart—but the policies they've helped author during the campaign have earned Obama the trust of the left. In Obama's efforts to dig out of the recession, they'll design the shovels.

16. Dick Durbin
Senator, Illinois

It was telling that Obama asked Durbin to introduce the biggest speech of his career, back in Denver. Along with Claire McCaskill, he is the president's staunchest ally in the Senate, a total loyalist. That's a good thing for Obama, because the well-liked Durbin is the second most powerful Democrat there. Durbin will confront one problem with the Senate Democrats: They all believe they have more experience than that upstart president.

17. John Kerry
Senator, Massachusetts

According to the rumor mill, Kerry traded his primary endorsement of Obama in return for the secretary of state gig. That would be a selection bound to provoke controversy with moderate Democrats, not to mention Republicans eager to frame Obama as soft. (Kerry wasn't tough enough to defend himself from the Swifties!) If he doesn't join the administration, the omnipresent surrogate could become head of the Senate banking committee—and the author of legislation creating the next regulatory state.

18. Eric Holder
Former deputy attorney general of the United States

His role in the pardoning of Marc Rich and the Elian Gonzalez fiasco made him a favorite whipping boy of the right. But he's racked up serious wise-man points since serving as Clinton's deputy attorney general, getting tapped for all sorts of supersensitive missions—from investigating Michael Vick's dog-fighting for the NFL to co-heading Obama's veep search. Could a Justice Department appointment be far behind? The man known as "The Heartthrob" at U.S. Superior Court during his prosecutor days will need all his charm during that confirmation battle. 

19. Andy Stern
President, Service Employees International Union

The only real powerhouse left in the House of Labor, he has kept SEIU growing as other unions shrank. His people endorsed Obama early, and, with his man in the White House, Stern stands to be the go-to guy on issues of economic security. The animating notion of Obama's domestic policy is the creation of an economy that rewards work instead of wealth. Stern will be making sure that his hard-working union members get what Obama owes them.

20. Hillary Clinton
Senator, New York

Many people suspected she would do the bare minimum, and no more, to elect her erstwhile rival. By energetically stumping for Obama, she put those fears to bed. But how will she play the next four years? She can transform herself into a latter-day Ted Kennedy, a legislative maestro. (Thanks to Podesta, she'll have plenty of her former worker bees in top administration positions.) Or she can wait to see if Obama falls on his face, positioning her for one last run at the White House.

21. Tim Geithner
President, Federal Reserve Bank of New York

One way or another, he'll be crucial to remaking the U.S. financial system—either at the Treasury Department or from his current perch. A smooth operator who's made humility his disarming modus operandi, he'll be called on to craft reforms and then sell them to Wall Street. The banks might get rolled, but at least they'll feel like they've been heard. (See "Obama's Choice," page 23, for more on Geithner.)

22. Al Gore
Chairman, Alliance for Climate Protection

Obama may have run on the greenest platform in decades, but the former veep took pains not to get too involved in the campaign—a reticence that may point to his skepticism of Obama's environmental bona fides. That means an EPA slot or climate-czar role looks unlikely.Instead, he'll be the looming conscience of the party: If Obama edges away from his promise to pass a stringent cap on greenhouse gases, the Goreacle could use his new $300 million grassroots "We" campaign to publicly push him back to the green.

23. Greg Craig
Senior foreign policy adviser, Obama campaign; partner, Williams & Connolly

One of the most loyal Clintonistas—he was Bill's lawyer during impeachment and served in his State Department—and one of the first to defect to Obama, Craig added insult to injury when he offered a devastating point-by-point rebuttal to Hillary's inflated claims of foreign policy experience (sniper fire, et al.). He's such a true believer that Obama calls him a "Kool-Aid boy"—and now he's on the shortlist for jobs as prized as White House counsel or national security adviser.

24. Nicolas Sarkozy
President, France

Sarkozy's chief ambition is to make France powerful again. And he's found l'Americain to partner with. After Sarko's rapturous meeting with Obama in July ("You must want a cigarette after that," Maureen Dowd teased Obama), Mr. Pro-America became even more pro-Obama. (Key bonding point: They are both sons of immigrants who busted ethnic monopolies on power.) Sarkozy is poised to be to Obama as Blair was to Clinton and Bush—the first foreign leader consulted in an international crisis, the honored guest at the most lavish state dinners. One potential hitch: According to Haaretz, Sarko doesn't especially like Obama's plans for sitting down with Tehran.

25. Cassandra Butts
Senior adviser, Obama campaign

Funny who you can meet in the financial aid office. During his first year at Harvard Law, Obama hit it off there with Butts. Twenty years later, this Hill veteran (Butts advised Dick Gephardt) signed up as Team Obama's all-around domestic policy guru. Working from her outpost at CAP, she already has played a big role in doling out jobs in Obamaland. Now, one could be coming her way: chief domestic policy adviser.

26. Julius Genachowski
Co-founder and managing director, Rock Creek Ventures

Obama has advisers he trusts deeply (Valerie Jarrett) and ambassadors to the D.C. establishment (Tom Daschle), but precious few people who overlap in these sets. That's why he needs Harvard Law Review pal and former FCC staffer Genachowski, who's been a key adviser and fund-raiser since the start of Obama's political career. It's widely assumed that Obama will name his tech-savvy friend, who was also a top exec at Barry Diller's Internet company, to be chairman of the FCC, or to the newly created cabinet position of chief technology officer.

27. Joel Benenson
Founding partner, Benenson Strategy Group

Not that many folks in Washington had heard of the New York-based pollster before the Obama campaign. (Like Axelrod, he used to be a daily newspaper reporter.) But he edged aside a crowded internal group to become a regular presence in debate prep and strategy sessions. Despite Obama's loud protestations that he pays little attention to polls, Benenson will remain in Axelrod's tightest circle.

28. Susan Rice
Senior foreign policy adviser, Obama campaign

She latched onto the campaign early—and took to the airwaves to defend it often. A Rhodes Scholar, former State Department hand, and soft-power evangelist, she opposed the Iraq war—a stance that alienated her from many of her old comrades in the Clinton administration.Because of the longevity of her relationship with Obama, early money had her trodding the path beaten by another African American woman named Rice to national security adviser. But some question whether she's too ideological to play the role of honest policy broker—a concern that might steer Obama toward placing her in a top job at the State Department instead.

29. Penny Pritzker
Chair, Classic Residence by Hyatt

Every president gets one freebie cabinet appointment to install a best pal. Bush stuck Don Evans at Commerce. Chatter has the Hyatt Hotel heiress filling that role. She was an early Obama patron—causing some of his old Chicago rivals to portray him as a puppet of the Jews. This race, Obama's national finance chair did her own version of the great schlep, vouching for him with skeptical bubbes and zeides. 

30. Phil Griffin
President, MSNBC

He's the man who unleashed Olbermann and Maddow—and made MSNBC the left's answer to Fox. It's been ratings gold, but the Obama administration poses a slew of knotty dilemmas: Will Olbermann and Maddow defend the administration against its critics? Or will they fulminate when it inevitably disappoints Obama's lefty fans? By all accounts Griffin, recently described as a "hippie," isn't exactly a disciplinarian. Olbermann once declared, "Phil thinks he's my boss."

This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.