Soon after Barack Obama, D-Ill., took his seat in the Senate in 2005, his new Senate chief of staff called Jason Grumet, who heads the broad-based National Commission on Energy Policy.
"He asked if we could help them bring together a kind of unusual group of energy experts," Grumet recalled. "It's the first time any Senate office contacted me to say, 'Can you bring together a group of people who will have disagreements?'"
To their dinner at Washington's Hotel George, Grumet brought a group that ranged from a senior official of the Steelworkers Union to former CIA director and ardent Iraq war backer James Woolsey.
The energy meeting was one of a series of such gatherings, seminars of a sort, that the freshman senator quietly convened beginning in his first months in office. They reflected both Obama's inexperience with many of the nuances of the national policy debate and his immediate sense of himself as a player on the national stage — if not a candidate for president in 2008.
These policy primers also showed Obama's eagerness to hear voices across the ideological spectrum, even if his conclusions would typically fall well within the Democratic Party's mainstream.
On Capitol Hill, Obama was a mere freshman, and he initially set his sights on relatively uncontroversial measures. The first piece of legislation he introduced, co-sponsored by Democratic centrist Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, was an amendment aimed at combating bird flu.
But, unlike many senators, Obama staffed his Senate office with a "policy director" as well as a legislative director. The aide, Karen Kornbluh, a veteran of the Clinton administration and a fellow at the New America Foundation, was hired in part to coordinate the seminars. Her role was a mark that Obama didn't intend to be limited by the congressional agenda or by his junior standing.
"The bigger issues that are being dealt with by the country are not necessarily being dealt with on a day-to-day basis by the Senate," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director in the Senate and on his presidential campaign.
Obama has shown a willingness to lean on experts whose views are outside the Democratic Party's orthodoxy — one of his economic advisers co-authored a proposal to privatize Social Security, something that Obama opposes and that has been criticized by his rivals' supporters. And Obama's Senate press secretary, Ben LaBolt, declined to give a full list of the experts with whom Obama had met, offering instead three who he said were representative.
Interviews with those, and with a handful of others who participated in the Obama seminars, suggest, unsurprisingly, that the senator's discursive, academic style — which can come as a surprise to audiences who expect partisan red meat — was catnip to policy wonks. Though Obama hasn't spent decades participating in the national domestic policy conversation to the extent that Bill Clinton had when he first sought the presidency, guests said they were struck by both Obama's immersion in the policy details and his interest in the politics of policy.
"I've been here for 28 years, I've seen them come and go, I've seen the smart ones and the not so smart ones, and I was really impressed with his intellect and his sensitivity to the politics," said Bill Klinefelter, who was then the legislative director of the United Steelworkers of America.
"I remember being quite impressed by how much he had gotten into making these things work," said Woolsey.
Klinefelter, and Obama's aides, said the energy meeting helped generate the Fuel Economy Reform Act, a bill currently before the Senate that would tighten emissions limits but also change the structure of the standards regime to offer more flexibility to automakers.
The bill won bipartisan support from some senators who had previously opposed tightened sandards. But Obama is currently trying to insert elements of the bill as an amendment to the pending energy bill, LaBolt said.
Other meetings touched on other areas of policy. There was a meeting in Obama's office, over takeout Chinese food, on trade with China, one participant recalled. Another was on the Central American Free Trade Agreement — an agreement Obama, along with most Senate Democrats, voted against.
Economic policy advisers included Dan Tarullo, a former Clinton administration official who has since become an informal policy adviser to Obama's presidential campaign and who campaign aides suggested a reporter speak to. Another economic voice was Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, which has been skeptical of the advantages of the trade deals struck by Clinton in the 1990s.
"He outlined his view of the economy," Bernstein said. "He's very bullish on market forces but doesn't view them as fragile as all that."
Another briefing, on the topic of education, included Jon Schnur — the founder of New Leaders for New Schools, a group focused on improving the quality of school principals — whom the campaign also suggested contacting. Schnur's group isn't directly engaged in the running battles over who controls public schools, but his focus on principals, and his embrace of charter schools, has put him at odds with teachers' unions, a powerful force in the Democratic Party.
"What I appreciated was that [Obama] was focused on what works for kids and what were the barriers for kids," said Schnur, who is not aligned with a presidential candidate. "He seemed open to hearing answers across the ideological and institutional landscape."
The seminars also reflected Obama's newness to the Senate and to national policy debates. Though he had offered some policy planks during his Senate campaign — such as raising fuel emissions standards and pressing for universal health care — he was not entirely familiar with decades of congressional close combat on key issues.
However, his aides were quick to brush aside any notion that Obama was, as some Democrats like to portray President Bush, in need of a basic education on matters of national policy.
"This is not like Condi comes to Texas," said Gibbs. "This is not, 'Here's the map. Here's Russia.'"
By Ben Smith
© 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company