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Meet Jim Messina, Obama's 'Enforcer' Against Progressives

He's been called "the most powerful person in Washington that you haven't heard of."

The following article first appeared in the Nation Magazine. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

In March 2009 the Campaign for America’s Future, a top progressive group in Washington, launched a campaign called “Dog The (Blue) Dogs” to pressure conservative Blue Dog Democrats to support President Obama’s budget. When he heard about the effort, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who was regarded as the Obama administration’s designated “fixer,” called CAF’s leaders into the White House for a dressing down, according to a CAF official. If the group wanted to join the Common Purpose Project, an exclusive weekly strategy meeting between progressive groups and administration officials, CAF had to drop the campaign. We know how to handle the Blue Dogs better than you do, Messina said. Not wanting to sour its relationship with the White House at this early date, CAF complied, and the campaign quickly disappeared from its website. Despite Messina’s assurance, however, the Blue Dogs would remain a major obstacle to the realization of the president’s legislative agenda.

The hardball tactics used by Messina against CAF exemplified how the Obama administration would operate going forward—insistent on demanding total control, hostile to any public pressure from progressives on dissident Democrats or administration allies, committed to working the system inside Washington rather than changing it. As deputy chief of staff, Messina held the same position once occupied by Karl Rove (and Josh Lyman on  The West Wing). He worked as a top lieutenant for Rahm Emanuel and became the administration’s lead enforcer after Emanuel left for Chicago. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer calls Messina “the most powerful person in Washington that you haven’t heard of.” Messina’s dream job was to become chief of staff. Instead, he recently got an arguably more important assignment—manager of Obama’s re-election campaign.

Messina, a longtime aide to Montana Senator Max Baucus, entered Obamaworld in June 2008 as the campaign’s chief of staff. He had impressed Democrats by leading the effort in the Senate to oppose the Bush administration’s push to privatize Social Security and quickly won the trust of campaign manager David Plouffe, who put Messina in charge of day-to-day operations. “I spend the money, so everything’s gotta go through me to get spent, which is the best job ever,” Messina told  The New Yorker. “It’s like getting the keys to a fucking Ferrari.” (Messina has been spotted driving a black Porsche convertible in Washington.)

Unlike Plouffe, who became a revered figure among Obama supporters, Messina begins the re-election campaign with a significant amount of baggage. As a former chief of staff to Baucus and deputy to Emanuel, Messina has clashed with progressive activists and grassroots Obama supporters both inside and outside Washington over political strategy and on issues like healthcare reform and gay rights, alienating parts of the very constituencies that worked so hard for Obama in 2008 and that the campaign needs to reinspire and activate in 2012. Obama’s fixer has arguably created as many problems as he’s solved. “He is not of the Obama movement,” says one top Democratic strategist in Washington. “There is not a bone in his body that speaks to or comprehends the idea of a movement and that grassroots energy. To me, that’s bothersome.”

Messina’s allies say he’s a savvy, experienced operative who played a key role in the passage of Obama’s legislative agenda, and is well prepared to lead a tough campaign for the president. “Jim was tasked with bringing together various parts of the progressive community to unite behind the president’s historic agenda—affordable, accessible healthcare for all Americans, repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and ending the war in Iraq, among other priorities,” says Hari Sevugan, a Democratic Party spokesman. “Despite their differences, he rallied that coalition behind the president’s agenda and played a critical role in making these common goals a reality. It’s exactly this ability to get things done, along with his deep relationships with grassroots leaders, activists and members of Congress, which will make Jim a strong leader for the president’s re-election effort.” But other Democrats interviewed for this article, who have dealt with Messina in the past, questioned whether he’s the right man for the job, and what his elevation says about the kind of re-election campaign Obama plans to run. (Some declined to speak on the record for fear of retribution.)

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