Obama's policy team loaded with all-stars

Washington Bureau

Barack Obama's presidential bid may have a well-cultivated insurgent feel, as the candidate both benefits and suffers politically from a relatively thin record of experience in Washington.

But the swelling team of policy advisers who have joined his campaign shows a politician grounded in his party's intellectual mainstream and well-connected within the capital's Democratic establishment.

As Obama rapidly transitioned from a senator with less than three years in office to a presidential candidate who has delivered detailed policy speeches, he has assembled a personal think tank that easily outsizes any of the established Washington policy institutes that provide intellectual fodder for the political war of ideas.

On foreign policy alone, some 200 experts are providing the Obama campaign with assistance of some sort, arranged into 20 subgroups. On the domestic front, more than 500 policy experts are contributing ideas, campaign aides said. Veterans of previous election campaigns say the scale of the policy operation resembles the full-blown effort candidates typically undertake for a general election campaign rather than the more stripped-down versions common for the primary season.

Senior advisers include heavy hitters from the administration of President Bill Clinton, husband of Obama's primary rival.

Anthony Lake, Clinton's original national security adviser, is helping coordinate foreign policy. So is Susan Rice, a Clinton assistant secretary of state and protege of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Eric Holder, a former deputy attorney general, is among those providing expertise on legal policy.

"These are not outsiders trying to tear down the temple," said Philip Zelikow, a former senior Bush administration foreign policy official and executive director of the Sept. 11 commission.

"If you guess that he's surrounded himself with people who are highly ideological, left-wing or dovish, you would guess wrong," added Zelikow, now a history professor at the University of Virginia. "These folks cannot easily be typecast by ideology."

Free-market economic team

Key economic advisers include a few Washington veterans such as Michael Froman, a Citigroup executive and former chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the Cabinet member most closely identified with the Clinton administration's pro-free trade, business-friendly policies.

There are also several scholars from prestigious universities whose approaches are anchored in dominant market-oriented economic thought. One is Austan Goolsbee, a 38-year-old star University of Chicago Business School professor and New York Times columnist with centrist Democratic views who has argued for eliminating tax returns for many Americans with simple finances.

Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, described Obama's top economic advisers as "mainstream with a dash of creativity."

"These are people who think new thoughts -- within the mainstream, new without a capital N," said Blinder, now a professor at Princeton University.

The campaign policy team gathered around Obama is hardly a shadow Cabinet. If he wins the nomination, other Democratic policy experts who now are neutral or allied with a different candidate will gravitate toward him. If he's elected, still more will join his circle.

But the makeup of the group, and the way in which Obama deliberates with its members, offers a window onto how he might operate as president. Many of them surely would graduate to influential roles in an Obama administration. Their discussions of the broad range of issues a presidential candidate must address provide an early if imperfect drill for decision-making in the Oval Office.

The worldviews of the advisers candidate George W. Bush gathered around him turned out to predict his foreign policies better than his campaign rhetoric that America should be "humble" in the world and avoid commitments to nation-building.

Such architects of the Iraq war as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice and Richard Perle all were influential policy advisers to Bush's presidential campaign. Colin Powell made important public appearances on behalf of candidate Bush but remained distant from the campaign's foreign policy deliberations, foreshadowing the role he would play in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Obama built relationships with high-powered policy experts even before he was elected to the Senate.

Goolsbee first met Obama, then a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, in the faculty social world. University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, two of the nation's leading liberal legal scholars, have relationships with Obama respectively dating back to the University of Chicago faculty lounges and Obama's days at Harvard Law School. Lake began giving Obama informal foreign policy advice even before Obama won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

Once elected to the U.S. Senate, Obama set up an ambitious policy operation for a newcomer. Froman, a former fellow editor of the Harvard Law Review, helped make connections in Washington's policy establishment. So did Cassandra Butts, another law school classmate and former senior policy adviser to then-House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt. She continues to assist with Obama's policy operation.

Big-picture operation

Unusual for freshman senators, who typically concentrate on the daily demands of legislative activity, Obama created a small operation devoted to broad themes under policy director Karen Kornbluh, another former Rubin aide. Kornbluh has written of the need to update government benefits such as Social Security and private employee benefits to take account of the country's shift toward two-income families. It is a theme Obama included in his book "The Audacity of Hope" and frequently sounds on the campaign trail.

His staff quickly began bringing in outside experts for wide-ranging discussions on policy: trade over Thai takeout in his Senate office, energy over dinner at a trendy Capitol Hill restaurant. Obama brings the Socratic style of a law professor to policy discussions and enjoys the give-and-take of opposing views, advisers said.

"It's very spirited," said one longtime aide. "He tests out ideas and challenges people. Nobody is allowed to be quiet."

Among the early additions to his circle was Samantha Power, a Harvard professor who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book criticizing U.S. historical failures to act against genocides. She took a leave from her faculty position to help the new senator with foreign policy and remains an influential adviser.

Other top campaign advisers on national security include Gregory Craig, a Clinton impeachment defense attorney and former director of policy planning in the Clinton State Department, and Clinton Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, who has written on the potential dangers of terrorist strikes using biological weapons.

Sarah Sewall, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and former Clinton Defense Department official who wrote the introduction to the University of Chicago edition of the new counterinsurgency manual Gen. David Petraeus revised for the military, is advising on counterinsurgency strategy.

Since Obama announced his presidential campaign, he has been deluged with offers from experts to assist with policy advice, said campaign aides and outside advisers. Though they attribute that to enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy, his campaign also provides greater opportunity for the ambitious, because front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) relies on an established circle of advisers.

The senior members of the national security team resemble their Clinton administration colleagues now gathered around the former first lady in favoring an active U.S. engagement in the world.

But they tend to be people who, like Obama, were early critics of the Iraq invasion. Many also share a conviction that the foreign policy mistakes of the Bush administration are so serious that the next president must give a clear signal of a new direction.

They are not necessarily foes of military action. Lake was an advocate within the Clinton administration of military intervention in Haiti and Bosnia.

Several advisers said they saw the tough-mindedness and freshness that attracted them to Obama during two incidents that the Clinton campaign tried to portray as gaffes showing foreign policy naivete.

Obama said during a candidate debate that he would be willing to meet with international pariahs such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Shortly afterward, he declared he would be willing to order a military strike if he had "actionable intelligence" on the location of top Al Qaeda leaders in northwestern Pakistan and authorities there refused to act.

Rather than back away, Obama embraced the conflict with Clinton.

"Some voters on the Democratic side have complained they don't know where the real differences are," Power said. "It added clarity to what his campaign is about, and it gave a coherence to a number of policies he is pursuing."

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Obama's policy team

Foreign policy/national security

Anthony Lake

(Bill Clinton national security adviser)

Susan Rice

(Clinton assistant secretary of state for African affairs)

Samantha Power

(Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor, Pulitzer Prize-winner author of book arguing for more vigorous U.S. action to counter genocidal campaigns)

Gregory Craig

(Clinton impeachment defense attorney and director of policy planning for Clinton State Department)

Richard Danzig

(Clinton Navy secretary, has written on potential dangers of terrorist biological weapons attacks)

Former Maj. Gen. Scott Gration

(Retired Air Force officer, former director of strategy for U.S. European Command, military officer assigned to accompany Obama on senator's Africa trip)

Former Gen. Merrill McPeak

(Retired former chief of staff of the Air Force)

Domestic policy

Austan Goolsbee

(University of Chicago Graduate School of Business professor, economist. Has argued that taxpayers with simple finances should be allowed to forgo tax returns and leave tax computation to IRS)

Michael Froman

(Citigroup executive, former chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin)

David Cutler

(Health economist, Harvard professor and member of Clinton White House Council of Economic Advisers. Advocate of tying health-care provider reimbursements to medical performance.)

David Blumenthal

(Director, Institute for Health Policy, Harvard Medical School)

Jeffrey Liebman

(Economist, Harvard professor and member of Clinton White House Council of Economic Advisers. Research has focused on role of earned income tax credit in moving people from welfare to work.)

Dan Tarullo

(International trade expert, Georgetown law professor and former Bill Clinton economic adviser)

Eric Holder

(Clinton deputy attorney general)

Cass Sunstein

(University of Chicago law professor)

Laurence Tribe

(Harvard law professor)

Cassandra Butts

(Senior policy adviser to House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt)


Mark Alexander, campaign policy director

(Seton Hall law professor, issues director for Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign)

Heather Higginbottom, campaign senior policy strategist

(Deputy national policy director for John Kerry 2004 campaign, Senate legislative director for John Kerry)

Karen Kornbluh, Senate policy director

(Deputy chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, has written of need to update social insurance system to accommodate dual-income "juggler families")



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