For His Campaign, Obama Has Assembled an Eclectic Brain Trust

The Democratic nominee tries to foster a lively debate between his advisers over policies and strategy.

Obama relies on Austan Goolsbee as one of his top economic advisers.

Obama relies on Austan Goolsbee as one of his top economic advisers.

By + More

Like so many presidential candidates before him, Barack Obama is impressed by the leadership skills of Abraham Lincoln, especially Lincoln's willingness to surround himself with strong-minded advisers who gave him a wide variety of ideas to choose from. It's the same approach Obama plans to use if he is elected president, aides say. "He wants people around him who have the courage to state their points of view," says an Obama adviser. "He wants the unvarnished opinions of the people he trusts."

This is already a hallmark of Obama's inner circle. At meetings, the Democratic presidential nominee invites disagreements. He often asks questions to shake things up, pushing and prodding, even when he thinks he knows the answers. His goal is to draw out his staffers and see if they can come up with new approaches he ought to consider.

Unlike President George W. Bush, who doesn't like second-guessing after he makes a decision, Obama encourages his advisers to constantly re-evaluate what's being done so he can adjust his thinking if circumstances change or if someone has a better idea.

As with any president, Obama's brain trust will be crucial to his success if he wins the White House in November. His closest confidants are an eclectic mix of longtime friends who are devoted to him, Chicago pals from his years in Illinois who have strong liberal backgrounds, and former officials in President Bill Clinton's administration who are eager to move up the ladder of government to higher-level jobs—all under the philosophy of what one called "principled pragmatism."

David Axelrod. A former Chicago Tribune reporter and longtime Democratic consultant, the soft-spoken and cerebral David Axelrod is Obama's chief political strategist. "Ax," who has run a host of campaigns, including two successful mayoral bids in Chicago and Deval Patrick's victory as the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, shares Obama's desire for diverse opinions. And like Obama, he is methodical and perseverant. He is not known for trying to reconstruct the candidates he works for to make them more appealing according to public opinion polls. Instead, Axelrod encourages authenticity, advising his clients to be who they are as he tries to build up their strong points.

Axelrod, 53, was a devoted admirer of Robert F. Kennedy in his adolescence and was emotionally crushed when Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Now he sees Obama's campaign as an opportunity to rekindle the idealism that RFK once inspired, especially among young people.

From the start of this campaign, Axelrod worked closely with Obama to fashion a central theme of "change," and he believes Obama could transform politics if he wins. He saw Obama's potential early. "My involvement was a leap of faith," Axelrod once said of his decision to help Obama win his long-shot campaign for the Senate from Illinois in 2004. "I thought that if I could help Barack Obama get to Washington then I would have accomplished something great in my life."

Since then, he has become a close friend and confidant of both Obama and his wife, Michelle.

Axelrod is also heavily involved in charity work. He and his wife, Susan, have a daughter with epilepsy, and the couple have been active in efforts to raise money for epilepsy research.

If Obama wins, Axelrod could become a counselor at the White House or chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Susan Rice. In the Clinton administration, Susan Rice served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. But today, she has expanded her portfolio to include the rest of the world, becoming an invaluable member of Obama's team. She is an advocate of principled pragmatism in foreign affairs—a strong set of ideals such as a commitment to human rights and democracy tempered by the acknowledgement that there are limits to American power.

Rice argues, along with Obama, that the Bush administration has allowed the United States to become too isolated in the world and is too focused on military solutions to international problems. Her candidate, she says, is "uniquely attuned to 21st-century national security challenges."