No president stands alone. Behind the scenes there is always a cadre of advisers who develop policy, formulate strategy, provide moral support, and, if the confidants are savvy and brave enough, tell the president when he's on the wrong track. Some presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have used "kitchen cabinets," groups of long-standing and loyal friends outside the government who kept them grounded. Others have formed very small inner circles within the government and kept their thoughts mostly to themselves. This category includes Richard Nixon, a solitary brooder who gave his trust to only a few loyalists such as Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff, and Bob Ehrlichman, a senior counselor. [See a slide show of 10 keys to an Obama comeback. ]
President Obama's inner circle is modest in size but vital to his presidency. He brought some of his closest advisers and friends into the government, such as business executive and former city official Valerie Jarrett and political strategist David Axelrod, both from Chicago. But Obama also hired some high-powered Washington insiders to help him navigate the labyrinth of Capitol Hill, led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. And as the midterm elections approach, Obama is listening increasingly to Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former governor of Virginia. [See the members of Obama's inner circle.]
Here's a primer on some of Obama's key aides:
Rahm Emanuel, 50, loves his reputation as the "Rahm-inator," an expletive-spewing tough guy from Chicago who is Obama's enforcer. His job is to run the White House, see the problems just over the horizon, and generally get things done for Obama, who, aside from his Senate experience, entered office as a Washington neophyte. Obama is counting on Emanuel to coordinate policymaking and legislative strategy with message-making, all designed to put the Democrats in the best light this November.
And Emanuel is well equipped to play that role. He is a former U.S. representative from Chicago who rose to be one of the top leaders in the House of Representatives. He gained a reputation for political savvy as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, when he engineered the Democratic takeover of the House. In the 1990s, Emanuel had cut a wide swath in the Executive Branch as a hard-charging political adviser to President Bill Clinton. [Read more on Rahm Emanuel.]
David Axelrod, 55, isn't subtle about his feelings for Obama. "I love the guy," he says. Axelrod, a former political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, jumped into politics to make a difference and participate directly in public life rather than just observe it.
Axelrod says Obama needs to make the case that the November elections should not be a referendum on the president and the Democratic majority in Congress but should be portrayed as a choice between Democratic and Republicans policies. And he says the president and his surrogates need to bill the GOP as the party of obstruction.
Axelrod has known the president since Obama was a state senator in Illinois. In 2004, Axelrod ran Obama's campaign for the U.S. Senate and, in 2008, was the mastermind behind Obama's long-shot presidential bid. He is now a senior adviser in the White House, where he influences both policy and political strategy.
"Axe," as he is called around the West Wing, is cerebral, serious, and unflappable, reflecting his boss. But some Washington veterans say Axe may be too close to Obama to see his faults. Axelrod insists he is candid with Obama and will tell him what needs to be said. But perhaps his main value is that Axelrod is a completely loyal soldier, and presidents find that trait to be invaluable when they are in the trenches of Washington. [Read more on David Axelrod.]
Valerie Jarrett, 53, is another ultimate Obama fan. In fact, no one is closer to Barack and Michelle Obama than Jarrett. An old friend from Chicago, Jarrett is a lawyer and former business executive who also served as deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley. She was instrumental in hiring Michelle Obama to work in the mayor's office in 1991 and has been close to the Obama family ever since.