1. Dick Cheney (6 in the 2007 list )
Former Vice President of the United States
A low key and intensely loyal vice-president, Dick Cheney has emerged as the principal tormentor of Barack Obama in the past year, shaping the national debate on national security and forcing the White House to scramble to respond. Cheney signalled his intent way back in February when he stated that protecting America was “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” in which “evil people” would not be stopped “by turning the other cheek”. Having campaigned against the “politics of fear” and ridiculing the notion of a war on terror, Obama is finding out that the Islamist threat was not something dreamed up by Cheney and Bush. The President has been repeatedly rattled by Cheney, as illustrated by his decision last May to time a speech so that it would coincide with the former vice-president’s address at the American Enterprise Institute. It was Cheney who framed Obama’s delay on deciding his Afghanistan surge strategy as “dithering” – and the characterisation stuck.
Some Republicans are deeply uncomfortable about Cheney being the voice of national security for the party – and in many respects the main voice on any issue. They fret that he is old and white and grumpy and has low approval rating – making him, in essence, everything that Obama is not (though the gap between their approval ratings is narrowing). We judge that this is missing the point. Cheney’s role at this stage – before a new Republican leader emerges – is to energise the party base (and he will also be a prodigious fundraiser for 2010 and 2012), keep Obama on the back foot and engage in the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of politics that some with their names on future ballots would prefer to sit out.
2. Rush Limbaugh (5)
Talk radio host
The king of conservative talk radio – in fact, any talk radio – continues to go from strength to strength. Much slimmer, due to get married for a fourth time on the Fourth of July and having just survived a heart attack scare in Honolulu, Limbaugh’s influence continues to expand far beyond his show. When Michael Steele, chair of the Republican National Committee, described Limbaugh’s rhetoric as “incendiary” and “ugly”, he soon corrected himself and apologised: “My intent was not to go after Rush – I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh.” Limbaugh, who turned 59 this week, has clearly got inside Obama’s head and the White House unwisely decided to brand him as the de facto leader of the Republican party as a way of marginalising the GOP. This only served to elevate Limbaugh – the vast majority of whose critics clearly never listen to his show.
Limbaugh flexed his muscle during the 2008 democratic primary battle by encouraging his listeners to vote for Hillary Clinton against Obama in what he dubbed “Operation Chaos”. Democratic operatives concede that he had an effect. Since Obama was elected, Limbaugh has gone after him like a starving pit bull let loose on a lamb. He has described Obama’s political rise as “a five-minute career” of a man who was “immature, inexperienced, in over his head”, charging: “I think he’s got an out-of-this-world ego. He’s very narcissistic. And he’s able to focus all attention on him all the time.” This prompted David Axelrod, a top Obama adviser, to respond rather lamely: “I think it’s a surreal day when you’re getting lectures on humility from Rush Limbaugh. The fact is that he is an entertainer. The president has to run the country.” But Limbaugh does not underestimate Obama. This week, he warned: “He is not a cool, calm customer. He’s a cold, calculating one, and he has a vision of America that is not yours and not mine.”
3. Matt Drudge (3)
Internet pioneer, owner of The Drudge Report
Many have predicted Drudge’s demise but the internet pioneer who sprung to national attention when he broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal as the mainstream media hesitated endures. As with Limbaugh, the White House despises Drudge but cannot stop thinking about him. When Drudge posted a video of Obama Biographies Plus News talking about the end of private health insurance in 2007, the White House sent out Linda Douglass, White House Deputy Communications Director and a former ABC News reporter to brand them “outright falsehoods”. Drudge promptly posted the clip of Douglass, who came off second in the tussle. Establishment journalism types often decry Drudge but many of them are in email contact with him and crave a link that can immediately catapult one of their stories to the top of their newspaper website’s “most viewed” list.
Perhaps the most reclusive figures in modern journalism, Drudge’s air of mystery is such that some people wonder whether he still exists. He did, however, make an appearance at a Washington DC rally when Hillary Clinton pulled out of the Democratic primary contest in June 2008. Very occasionally, he will return an email at a strange time of day. Although based in Miami, he is rumoured to be constantly on the move and often abroad. An admirer of the British media (which he frequently links to) he is believed to have spent time in the UK recently. His website remains defiantly low tech. As the Telegraph’s own Shane Richmond described it: “It’s a simple idea, executed brilliantly. The Drudge Report is a page of search results, handpicked for an audience its author knows well.” His site is reputedly run by just him and one other person, based in Los Angeles. Such is the fascination with what motivates Drudge’s choices that the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza coined the term “Drudge-ologist”, who dismissed “the inevitable argument that Drudge’s influence is overblown” by saying: “Tomorrow morning, take a minute to look at the stories Drudge is highlighting. Then, later in the day, watch a few cable channels to see what stories they are talking about. It will open your eyes.”
4. Sarah Palin (Not in the 2007 list)
Former Alaska governor
Palin came from nowhere in terms of the public consciousness in 2008 to become an instant political and media star who is vilified and lauded in equal measure. Things have not been smooth for Palin. Clearly unprepared to be a national candidate, John McCain rolled the dice when he chose her as his vice-presidential running mate. Initially, it seemed to pay off. She delivered a masterful speech at the Republican convention in St Paul, Minnesota, electrified a Republican base that had been distinctly underwhelmed by McCain – and the GOP nominee briefly edged ahead in the polls. It soon became apparent, however, that the McCain campaign was divided over whether Palin was an asset or a liability. They shielded her from the press, wounded her confidence and then plonked her in front of network anchors who made her look foolish and tongue-tied.
Rather than go back to Alaska, become a first-class governor, study policy issues and gently reintroduce herself to the “Lower 48” states in due course, Palin decided to do something entirely different. Stating that “only dead fish go with the flow”, she resigned the Alaska governorship, published a book that broke publishing records and, this week, signed on as a Fox News contributor. It remains unclear whether Palin intends to run for President – she may well genuinely not know herself – but she will certainly be one of conservatism’s most influential figures for the forseeable future. Rich Lowry of National Review described her as “an isotope designed to course throughout our politics and culture, lighting up press bias, self-congratulatory liberalism, Christianity-hating secularism, and intellectual condescension wherever they are found”. Whether she could be a saviour for Republicans or doom them to continued irrelevance is a question that will continue to divide conservatives across America.
5. Robert Gates (7)
The low-key Gates, a former CIA director whose original cover (soon blown) as a trainee spy was as a Pentagon official, was lured away from his beloved Texas A&M University by President George W. Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the end of 2006. Over a 27-year Agency career, Gates became the only person ever to rise from entry level to CIA chief. Obama dismayed many liberals by asking Gates to stay on but even though it is clear he is fulfilling much more than a caretaker his detractors are now quiet. During the autumn debate over troops levels in Afghanistan, Gates played a pivotal role in persuading Obama to commit more forces to support General Stanley McChrystal’s plan. The “Option 2A” that Obama eventually went for was essentially Gates’s formula.
Having overseen the Iraq surge, Gates is now charged with making the Afghanistan surge work. Although weighed down by military losses, Gates is finding his job so rewarding that he and Obama recently agreed he would stay on for at least another year. Firmly in the “realist” school of foreign policy, Gates still considers himself a Republican and his approach and style could well provide the template for presidential candidates in the post-Bush era.
6. Glenn Beck (18)
Fox News presenter
The fastest-rising star of cable television, Beck delivers monologues that veer from doom-saying to tears, jokes and rapid fire analysis of Obamaland’s suspect connections, hidden beliefs and dark plots. His subjects include: the threat of fascism/communism, terrorism, Wall Street fat cats, Mexico’s collapse, the decline of religion and power of the liberal media. All this is united by the theme of impending doom and the fear that the ordinary American is being forgotten.
It is working spectacularly. Since switching from CNN’s Headline News to Fox News Beck has soared up the ratings chart with his 5pm show capturing an average two million viewers, an unprecedented number at that hour. His talk radio show rates third in the country. There have been five best-selling books.
A recovered alcoholic and drug addict he has also cried more than any presenter in memory, often welling up at the thought of what will happen to the United States. “I’m sorry. I just love my country. And I fear for it,” he once wept.
His opposition to “big government” and Obama has seen him adopted by many in the Tea Party movement as their figurehead. There has been talk of a presidential bid, which will do his ratings no harm. “I consider myself a libertarian. I’m a conservative, but every day that goes by I’m fighting for individual rights,” explained Beck, who has described his show as a “fusion of enlightenment and entertainment”.
7.Roger Ailes (23)
President, Fox News Channel
When Roger Ailes, a veteran media consultant for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr, heard that his boss Rupert Murdoch was preparing to back Obama for President in a New York Post editorial, he threatened to resign. Murdoch responded by giving him a pay rise (he is said to have earned $23 million last year – more than Murdoch) and endorsing John McCain. As the traditional broadcast networks see their profits and influence decline, Ailes has turned Fox News into a cash cow for News Corporation, trading on the President’s growing unpopularity to make Fox the go-to place for everything anti-Obama. Assessing Fox’s influence, Obama reckoned the “Fox effect” had cost him two or three points in the 2008 election – which means that next time it could well decide who becomes President. Democratic operative James Carville recently said that if Ailes were a Democrat “I think there would be 67 Democratic senators right now”. There are currently 60.
Along with the legendarily combative operative Lee Attwater, Ailes was responsible for Bush Snr’s win over Michael Dukakis in 1988 by helping to portray the then Massachusetts governor as a weak leader lacking in humanity. The presence of so many Fox personalities – including its new signing Sarah Palin – on this list once again is testament to the runaway influence of Fox News, which Ailes started in 1996 as a rival to CNN. Keeps his distance from the Republican party these days, not least because its higher-ups go to him rather than vice versa . Truth be told, he and Fox are bigger than almost all of them.
8. David Petraeus (2)
Head of US Central Command
As commander of the troop surge in Iraq, General Petraeus became one of the most prominent US military officers in recent memory and was closely associated with President George W. Bush. Not only did his demand for extra troops and a switch to counter-insurgency tactics help put a devastated country on the track towards recovery, it helped salvage a chance of historical redemption for Bush.
Now head of all American forces in the Middle East, he has the delicate task of winding down the Iraq war while helping Obama to win in Afghanistan. In both countries he has commanders, General Ray Odierno and General Stanley McChrystal who share his views of counterinsurgency doctrine and have worked closely with him for years.
Centcom covers a vast area with 20 nations that contains most of the world’s current hot spots. Petraeus had twice travelled to Yemen to discuss how the US will support the government’s attempts to combat al-Qaeda’s affiliate there. Very much the soldier-scholar, Petraeus can more than hold his own in political company. Assumed to be a Republican, rumours of a run for office have subsided for the time being but the tone of his comments on Islamist terror, even in the confines of a congressional hearing, suggest that he tilts to the Right.
9. Paul Ryan (-)
Paul Ryan has it all – including time on his side. He entered Congress at the tender age of 28 and doesn’t turn 40 until this year. A budget hawk, he is now the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee and is holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire just as he challenged the Bush administration to return to fiscal conservatism. Undoubtedly a future presidential prospect, he hails from a swing state and won re-election in 2008 even though his district went for Obama – an illustration of his powerful crossover appeal. A Catholic and strong social conservative, Ryan is happily married with three children and is a keen bow hunter and fisherman. His website Americanroadmap.org outlines his plans to rewrite the entire federal tax, healthcare and Social Security system.
Increasingly a national figure, he recently endorsed Marco Rubio in the Florida Senate primary, saying that “Marco’s record of conservative leadership offers convincing evidence that he will hold Washington accountable, prevent government from wasting our tax dollars and lead a new generation of Republicans”. Showed he is not afraid to go against his party’s hierarchy. A former Senate aide, he wrote speeches for Jack Kemp, Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1996. He is the fifth generation of his family to live in Janesville, Wisconsin. Used to hold constituency hours in an old truck that he would drive to remote towns and villages. Has a populist touch, recently penning an essay for Forbes entitled Down With Big Business, railing against lobbyists, “crony capitalism” and the “record profits” of rescued banks.
10.Tim Pawlenty (-)
Governor of Minnesota
The runner-up for the vice-presidential slot on the 2008 Republican ticket, he lost out to Sarah Palin then but is viewed by many GOP leaders as the better long-term bet. Has said he will not run for re-election when his term expires this year, meaning he will have more time to spend with his wife and two daughters, as well as the consultants he has quietly locked in for what everyone assumes will be a 2012 presidential bid. A Catholic who converted to become a Protestant evangelical, he is a favourite of Christian conservatives and also comes from a swing state and has the kind of Mid-West appeal that resonates in a national campaign. Although conservative on all the important issues, he advocates a broad church. “We loved Ronald Reagan, but he made some compromises along the way,” he said in 2008. “We don’t have a big enough party to be throwing people overboard.”
Has visited first-voting Iowa and even contacted supporters of Mitt Romney, the other Republican viewed as a certain 2012 candidate as well as founding his own political action committee, Freedom First. Is already engaged in a carefully-planned programme of criss-crossing the country speaking at conservatives dinners and other events. An increasingly assured cable television performer, he is a frequent critic of Obama, branding him a “movement liberal” who is “projecting potential weakness” on national security.
11. Mitt Romney (10)
Former Governor of Massachusetts
Romney failed to overcome doubts about the genuineness of his principles in 2008 after he transformed himself from a moderate Republican in Massachusetts in favour of abortion rights into a crusading social conservative. Despite his “Matinee Mitt” looks, huge fortune (though slightly less huge since he spent an estimated $50 million in 2008), executive experience and intelligence, Romney had an authenticity problem that he just could not overcome. His fellow Republican candidates seemed to have a visceral dislike of him, though that has abated somewhat, especially in the case of John McCain, whom Romney loyally supported in the general election campaign.
Since losing to McCain, Romney has barely stopped campaigning, taking frequent shots at Obama’s economic and foreign policy and forming the Free and Strong America Political Action Committee. The Republican congressional party has often sought the former CEO’s expertise for ideas on economic policy. It is widely assumed that he will run again in 2012 and if so probably start as the official frontrunner. The question of his Mormon religion – which many evangelicals regard as a semi-Christian cult – will doubtless rear its head again. And Republicans won’t have forgotten that Romney struggled to connect with voters outside the country club set and will be want to make a cold calculation about whether this is an insurmountable flaw.
12. George W. Bush (21)
In 2007, George W. Bush just missed our Top 20 top conservatives list – a provocative and controversial decision but one that reflected his disastrous poll ratings, the dismay of conservatives at out-of-control spending, the colossal mistakes over Iraq and his failure to consolidate the conservative majority he had won. Aides protested that history would vindicate him and already there are signs that this is happening. The Iraq “surge” of 2007 unquestionably won the war and has helped establish a viable democratic state in the heart of the Middle East. There were terrible errors committed along the way but Bush showed the vision and toughness to change course and commit American blood and treasure when all appeared lost.
Bush’s influence endures also because Obama and his advisers seem scarcely able to do anything without referring to his predecessor. This betrays a shallowness that is beginning to wear thin with American voters. With the recent terrorist attacks, Bush’s relentless focus on Islamist terrorism now looks wise rather than obsessive and he bequeathed Obama one of the most impressive members of the current Cabinet – Bob Gates. Bush’s absence from the limelight and his refusal to criticise Obama even through surrogates is to be commended. So too was his personal insistence that led to the transition between the two administrations being one of the smoothest in American history.
13. John Roberts (8)
Supreme Court Chief Justice
There may be a liberal in the White House, but the Supreme Court has a reliable conservative at its head who is set to shape the parameters of American life for a generation. Aged 50 when he joined in 2005, he was the third youngest man to lead the court and has been a reliable conservative so far. In 2008, the court overturned on a 5-4 vote the District of Columbia’s 32-year-old ban on handguns as incompatible with the Second Amendment of the Constitution. The first major pronouncement on gun rights in the court’s history, it settled the argument over whether or not the controversial amendment applied to individuals. But it ruled that like all rights it was not absolute, essentially allowing states and cities to vary their gun laws on issues such as carrying and concealment.
The court did deal a setback to Bush, ruling that detainees held at Guantanamo Bay have a constitutional right to challenge their detentions in federal court and that congressional legislation has failed to provide a reasonable substitute for such a hearing. On that occasion Roberts was on the losing side as Justice Anthony Kennedy voted with the liberals. The Christian Right’s holy grail of overturning Roe versus Wade and making abortion illegal is not among the chief justice’s plans, but in the next few years detention, torture, free speech and other hot button issues will come before the Roberts court.
14. Haley Barbour (16)
Governor of Mississippi
Head of the Republican Governors Association after Mark Sanford stepped down in June, Barbour is a lawyer, lobbyist, political operative and Republican governor whose influence is huge at this key moment for American conservatism. As chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997 – the period of the “Republican Revolution” when the GOP won the Senate and House for the first time since 1954 – he has led his party back from the wilderness before. Made millions lobbying for the tobacco industry and others before entering electoral politics. Easily re-elected as Mississippi governor in 2007, Barbour is only the second Republican to secure the post since Reconstruction and won the backing of several of the state’s leading Democrats.
During Hurricane Katrina, his performance was compared to that of Rudy Giuliani in New York after the 9/11 attacks as he calmly ordered evacuations, threatened those who would break the law amid the carnage on the Gulf coast and declined to blame Bush or the federal government. As a personable, successful Southern governor with huge experience, he is a potential 2012 candidate but his lobbying background and slightly shambolic air would probably count him out. Recognising this, Barbour instead seems content to be one of the principal advocates for and strategists of another Republican revival. He warned last year, however, that it wouldn’t be easy. “The elections that matter for Republicans are in 2009 and ’10. 1993 paved the way for the 1994 congressional election. The 2009 elections in Virginia and New Jersey were a big tick on the box for the GOP and Barbour. He added: “The other thing that’s a fact is only once since 1896 has a party won the White House from the other party and only kept it four years. So history favours the Democrats but then again, we’re in unprecedented times in many, many ways.”
15. Eric Cantor (-)
Congressman for Virginia
A youthful 46, Cantor is routinely – and accurately – described as a rising star, becoming Minority Whip a year ago after eight years in the House of Representatives. The only Jewish Republican in Congress, he advocates a strong US-Israeli alliance and led a Republican congressional delegation to the Middle East in August to rouse support for Israeli settlements that he felt the White House overlooked.
Although a strong conservative across the board, he aims to help return the Republicans to power by becoming less ideologically focused on social issues and more concerned with economical issues. He believes “60 per cent of America is with us in believing in a Main Street, common-sense conservatism” but that Republicans struggle to connect with voters for reasons of image.
During his first year as Whip showed no qualms about taking on liberal big beasts such as Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank, excoriating them for politicising the first bailout bill. He regularly consults Newt Gingrich for inspiration about how the party can repeat his success of 1994 but it will be up to Cantor and his colleagues to produce eye-catching policy ideas if they really want to capitalise on disenchantment with the Democrats.
16. John McCain (9)
Senator for Arizona
The losing Republican presidential candidate’s concession speech on election night in 2008 was one of his finest moments, a shining example of the dignity, fairness and patriotism that McCain’s supporters adore him for.
Some erratic moments did his campaign no favours, but it was probably always a virtually unwinnable election for Republicans, and the former Vietnam prisoner of war came through with his honour substantially intact, not least because he declined to go strongly negative against Obama and raise issues like his relationship wth the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Plenty of fellow moderate Republicans have privately and publicly questioned the wisdom of picking Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate, but in the end it was perhaps no more than a gamble that didn’t pay off. No one could foresee the phenomenon she became.
The elder statesman remains his own man and one of few Senators whose remarks always command attention. His objections to Obama’s July 2011 to start bringing home troops from Afghanistan had a credibility rooted in his long foreign policy experience and advocacy of the successful surge in Iraq. Recently accused Obama of “leading an extreme Left-wing crusade to bankrupt America”. Obama would have done well to court his former opponent but seems to have missed his chance. McCain will remain in the thick of the legislative action, especially if the Democrats lose their filibuster-proof majority. Now 73, he will not run for President but is on course to be re-elected to another six-year term in the Senate.
17. Mike Pence (19)
Any conversation about rising stars within the conservative movement involves Mike Pence. A lawyer, former talk radio host and now the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives has just fuelled rumours of a possible presidential run by hiring national campaign operatives Kellyanne Conway and Bill Neale. Entered Congress in 2001 and has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order”. As chair of the Republican Study Committee – a conservative congressional caucus – Pence was a crusader for small government, low taxes and the outlawing of abortion. Now he’s even higher profile as chair of the GOP House conference.
Is beloved by the tea party movement, which could yet turn out to be the kingmaker in the Republican party. Although a 2012 presidential bid is possible, a more likely option for Pence might be to run for Governor of Indiana when Mitch Daniels steps down (he is term-limited). Alternatively, with Senator Richard Lugar in his 78th year, Pence would be a natural to replace him. An outspoken defender of conservative radio and television hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, he said in October: “To my friends in the so-called ‘mainstream media’ I say, ‘conservative talk show hosts may not speak for everybody but they speak for more Americans than you do.’” An accomplished communicator, he is at the forefront of rebuilding the Republican brand. “If you can’t communicate, you can’t govern,” he has said.
18. Bob McDonnell (-)
Governor-elect of Virginia
McDonnell’s landslide 17-point victory over opponent Creigh Deeds in the Virginia governor’s race last November stunned Democrats and demonstrated at an early stage that Obama’s party is in for a rough ride in 2010. Virginia took on an almost iconic status for the Obama campaign, voting for their man by a thumping margin over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. The traditionally conservative state with a strong military presence then chose Mr Obama over McCain.
19. Newt Gingrich (4)
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives
It is a testament to the power of Gingrich’s intellect, personality and penchant for self-promotion that a decade after leaving public office he remains a central conservative figure. Part of this is his interest in ideas rather than just the mechanics of politics. He has remained committed to low tax and small government as well as looking for innovative solutions to social challenges. He was increasingly critical of the Bush administration, eventually branding it a study in “arrogance, isolation and destructiveness” and vigourously opposed Bush’s proposed immigration reform.
Although still a hate figure among Democrats, he has cooperated with the likes of Hillary Clinton on healthcare and Al Sharpton on inner city education and appeared in a television ad alongside Nancy Pelosi to urge action on climate change. None of these alliances across the aisle has endeared him to grassroots Republicans. Neither did his endorsement of GOP candidate Dede Scozzafava in a New York state special House election rather than Doug Hoffman, the Conservative candidate. When Scozzafava pulled out and backed the Democrat, Gingrich was left with egg on his face.
He eventually ruled out a presidential bid in 2008 after conducting a long tease with the media. True to form, he is engaging in the same act for 2012, declaring this week: “”I think I’m probably on a list of seven or eight possible candidates at this stage.” Former aides, however, state that the thrice-married Gingrich knows he could never be president. An omnipresent media commentator, he has been a trenchant critic of the Obama’s national security policy. “We are watching the Obama administration return to the criminal-justice attitudes that failed to keep [the US] safe in the Clinton years,” he said recently.
20. Mike Huckabee (11)
It is widely assumed Huckabee will be among the early declarers for the 2012 Republican primary and if Sarah Palin joins the race they will battle for the evangelical, activist vote, which would test Huckabee’s gracious manners (except when he’s talking about Mitt Romney) and ready wit. Already preparing for the challenge, he told the New Yorker that the main difference between them was “she looks better in stilettos than I do, and she has better hair”.
The former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, and occasional rock musician, swept to a surprise victory in Iowa on the back of evangelical support and finished second to John McCain overall. Next time his fundraising operation should be stronger while he will have a ground operation established in Iowa and South Carolina. But many Republican insiders believe that 2008 was his political high water mark. His 2012 hopes were dealt a blow recently when it emerged that Maurice Clemmons, accused of murdering four police officers in Washington state, had been granted clemency by Huckabee in Arkansas in 2000.
Huckabee, who before 2008 was best known for losing lots of weight and advocating a healthy lifestyle, has kept his profile high after the primary, with a daily commentary on ABC Radio and the Huck Political Action Committee. Perhaps the biggest question mark over his participation is whether or not the former teenage local radio host finds his Saturday show on Fox News too comfortable a gig to leave.
1. Barack Obama (6 on the 2007 list)
The Harvard graduate who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia the son of a black father who deserted the family and a white mother who moved to Indonesia and left him in the care of his grandparents ran a masterful and truly historic presidential campaign. Going from state senator to President in four years was a remarkable achievement. His magnificent speeches captured the imagination of his nation and – perhaps even more so – the world. Last January, the words ‘hope” and “change” were on everyone’s lips as he stood on the steps of the Capitol and was sworn in on a frigid morning when it seemed anything was possible.
In the past year, however, Obama’s brand has been tarnished, perhaps irrevocably. His promises of bipartisanship have come to naught as the Democrats rammed through a party-line vote on healthcare. Never has such fundamental legislation been passed on the say so of one party when the country so clearly opposes it. The strategy is a dangerous gamble and it remains to be seen whether Obama can pull it off. Having ridiculed Bush for pursuing the “politics of fear”, Obama has had a rude awakening as he has listened to the daily intelligence reports and – on Christmas Day – was at the top of a national security apparatus that left America open to an al-Qaeda attack. Obama’s poll ratings now hover around 50 per cent – a remarkable slump. Even his famous ability to craft memorable phrases and formulate almost lyrical rhetoric now seems to be deserting him as inspiration gives way to perspiration. It is far, far too early to write Obama off. He could yet prove all his detractors wrong. But 2010 will bring the moment of truth for him.
2. Hillary Clinton (4)
Secretary of State
The supposedly “inevitable” Democratic nominee in 2008, the former First Lady blew it spectacularly. Her chief strategist Mark Penn – so seemingly omniscient in 2007 that he made number two on our list – made the disastrous decision to advise her to run on her experience in what in hindsight was obviously going to be a “change” election race. If she had run at least partly on the notion of making history as the first woman president, she would have dampened down the sense of entitlement and riding on the coattails of her husband that eventually doomed her bid. This year, Penn does not even make our list – Clinton fired him and it emerged he was unfamiliar even with the basic arithmetic of how delegate counts worked.
By the time the Clinton campaign woke up, the nomination was already lost to Obama. But Clinton fought like a tigress and embarrassed Obama, who limped over the finishing line. And Clinton’s critique of Obama is increasingly resonant. In February 2008, she said: “Now, I could stand up here and say let’s just get everybody together, lets get unified…the sky will open, the light will come down celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect. Maybe I’m just lived a little long but I have no illusions about how hard this will be.” Clinton debated long and hard whether to leave the Senate to become Obama’s Secretary of State. Accepting was a masterstroke. She has removed herself from the contentious domestic arena and has bolstered her foreign policy credentials immeasurably. In loyally backing Obama, she has begun to outshine him and her popularity ratings have soared. She has said she will never run for the White House again but it is our judgement that she will be a powerful presidential candidate in 2012 – and could well become the first female president.
3. Nancy Pelosi (5)
Speaker of the House
The third most powerful politician in the United States – she would ascend to the presidency if Obama and Joe Biden died together in office – and the highest-ranking female politician in American history, Pelosi is the go-to Democrat in Congress. So far, Obama has had plenty to thank her for – getting healthcare through the House of Representatives with a “public option” of government insurance intact and passing the stimulus and cap-and-trade legislation, albeit by just five votes. It sometimes appears she views Obama as something of an ingénue.
Her “Hundred Days” initiative at the beginning of the current Congress saw Democrats use their large majority to approve a raise in minimum wage, the remaining 9/11 commission recommendations, public disclosure of representatives’ pet projects and major ethics legislation that outright banned gifts and meals from lobbyists and restricted travel from outside groups.
Often denigrated as a San Francisco liberal by the Right, she has shown she can put her convictions to one side as Speaker and followed a pragmatic course when necessary. Not afraid to bring the Left-wing to heel, she persuaded liberals to vote for the healthcare bill despite Bart Stupak’s amendment restricting access to abortions, arguing that an imperfect bill was better than none. A mother of five, she was raised in Baltimore’s Little Italy. Her family was steeped in local Democratic Party politics and it rubbed off. Pelosi is a tireless fundraiser and forceful campaigner. She forged a strong anti-Bush message in 2006 that contributed to the Democrats’ emphatic victory. Finding a message for the 2010 mid-terms will be more of challenge, but her many detractors underestimate her at their peril.
4. Bill Clinton (1)
He battled tirelessly for his wife, holding sometimes six or seven rallies a day in small towns across South Carolina and North Carolina. But Bill Clinton’s fabled political instincts deserted him at times as he allowed the Obama campaign to be able to seize on his language and suggest he was playing the “race card” – without ever getting the Obama campaign’s fingerprints on the accusation. The red-faced, angry Bill Clinton ultimately did not serve his wife’s campaign well. But when she was offered the Secretary of State’s job, he agreed to moderate his activities around the world and disclose the sources of his foundation’s funds and he has been true to his word. As Obama’s presidency has faltered, Democrats have begun to look back to the Clinton years with increasing fondness. Though Clinton has been uncharacteristically silent, one suspects that he is saying to himself: “I told you so.”
Allegations in a recent book last week that he had conducted a romantic affair during the 2008 campaign caused little stir – an indication that Americans have moved beyond obsessing over Bill Clinton’s private life. As a pragmatic, centrist Democrat who understood politics from his gut as well as his brain, Clinton could yet provide the template for the next generation of Democratic leaders in the post-Obama era. Alternatively, he could help elect his wife in 2012. In many respects, it is far too early to speculate about such things. One thing, however, is certain – Bill Clinton is not going away.
5. Rahm Emanuel (13)
Intense, obsessive, profane, mercurial and driven, Rahm Emanuel is the cauldron to Obama’s cool. The former Democratic operative, Clinton staffer, House leader and millionaire investment banker has brought executive experience and a brash Chicago toughness to the White House as Obama’s chief of staff. Stories about “Rahmbo” are everywhere, from the time he sent a dead fish to a pollster who had crossed him to his relentless pursuit of potential Democratic candidates on the way to the party re-taking the House under his direction in 2006. The son of an Irgun veteran who fought the British in Palestine, Emanuel volunteered on an Israeli army supply base during the Gulf War before joining the Clinton campaign in 1992.
A brilliant fundraiser who was destined to eventually become House Speaker before he joined the Obama administration, it is unclear what the future holds for Emanuel. The White House has been far from the smooth “no drama” Obama campaign with leaks abounding and Emanuel suspected as having originated many of them. True, governing is very different from campaigning and every White House eventually becomes fractured and factionalised but some question whether Emanuel is controlling things as he should. There have been rumours he wants to run for Mayor of Chicago in 2011, a job he has coveted since boyhood. Lower profile than he was six months ago, Emanuel has not been as effective in pushing Obama’s agenda on Capitol Hill as some expected he would be. Emanuel, however, will undoubtedly remain a power to be reckoned with.
6. Al Gore (2)
Former Vice President, environmental campaigner
Without doubt the most influential voice on climate policy, Gore has engineered an astonishing turnaround since the body blow of losing to George W Bush in the 2000 presidential election despite winning the popular vote. He has also become exceedingly rich, with his personal fortune rising from $2 million to an estimated $96 million since he quit mainstream politics.
Accused of a massive conflict of interest because of his investments in green technology, Gore has countered that the majority of his business activity is not environmental, while every cent of such profit has gone into his foundation, the Alliance for Climate Protection. A bogeyman for climate change sceptics, the amount of electricity used in his Nashville home has also come under the microscope and the former veep was embarrassed when Irish documentary maker Phelim McAleer recently confronted him.
The High Court in London, assessing whether or not his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth should be shown in schools, found nine examples of factual inaccuracy made in “the context of alarmism and exaggeration”. None of this has made much of a dent in the Nobel Prize winner’s global reputation, however. Once expected to take an official advisory role to the Obama administration, he has instead remained above the fray.
Obama’s climate change “czar” Carol Browner is an old Gore protégé who served as the head of Environmental Protection Agency when he was vice-president, so his input into policy remains. She has already moved to tighten the federal government’s ability to impose restrictions on emissions. Both face an uphill task, however, to persuade the Senate to pass a cap-and-trade bill in the middle of recession.
7. Oprah Winfrey (9)
Talk show host
Some believe that the Queen of Talk is already the most influential person in the world. But Oprah, 55, upped her political influence cred, when she announced her endorsement in 2006 for Barack Obama, caling him “the One” – the first time she has ever endorsed a political candidate. Oprah appeared for her candidate at a primary campaign in South Carolina but it remains unclear whether it was she or President Bill Clinton’s perceived racial slights that delivered the landslide in the Palmetto State. One analysis credits her with garnering at least one million votes for Obama in the general election.
In November, Oprah reminded viewers on a show with guest Sarah Palin that she publicly had supported Obama for President. But when she asked Palin if she planned to replace her as the world’s most watched chat show host, Palin demurred, shrieking “You’re the queen, Oprah!” The following week, Oprah announced the decision to end the Oprah Winfrey Show as she expands her kingdom from Harpo Productions to her very own cable network—the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) – a move that will give the billionaire even more content control on the airwaves.
8. Tim Geithner (Did not appear on the 2007 list)
Overcoming the predictions of some and the hopes of others, Geithner has survived his first year. Complaints have come from both Left and Right: that he was too cosy with Wall Street, shouldn’t have let Lehmann Brothers fail and gave away too much tax payer money to the banks. All this criticism has been tempered by the fact that he has been confronted by the gravest challenge anyone holding his job has faced for 70 years. The economy was – and is – in the doldrums and the financial system was close to calamity, if not outright collapse when he was promoted from the chairmanship of the New York federal reserve.
Geithner had already played a leading role in structuring the $700 billion bailout agreed late in George W Bush’s term before he took the lead in devising the record $787 billion stimulus bill in the first months of the new administration. Early on he attracted negative comments for his unsure performances and at times rabbit-in-the-headlights demeanour, not to mention messing up his tax returns when at the IMF.
With a little time and Obama’s faith, his confidence in public has grown, while the message that Main Street is furious about how quickly Wall Street has returned to profits and handsome bonuses is finally getting through. Regulatory reform is grinding through Congress and a bank tax to recover lost tax revenue is under consideration. Perhaps more than anyone in government bar the president, Geithner’s decision-making will affect not just the country’s well being, but his boss’s political health.
9. David Axelrod (68)
White House Senior Advisor
The affable and disheveled Axelrod has managed to come through Obama’s first year with his reputation as one of the political scene’s nice guys relatively intact. Nonetheless, his easy-going manner and willingness to talk to the media may not be able to suppress concerns that he is simply reprising the nefarious – if not Machiavellian – White House consigliere role that has become so tainted over the years.
Officially his mission is to offer advice and protect and transmit the Obama message. As problems have mounted he has been used more and more frequently, particularly to respond to critics of healthcare. Karl Rove comparisons are the last he would welcome, but Axelrod attends National Security Council meetings, convenes weekly policy sessions and is intimately involved in devising retaliations against Right-wing critics such as Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney. He also delivers polling news to the president and is outranked only by his friend Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff.
Since the 2008 campaign started he has been a pillar of the Obama team. Axelrod once said, “If I could help to get Obama to Washington, then I would have accomplished something great in my life”. Whatever fire control he does between now and 2012, as things stand keeping Obama in the capital will be a substantial challenge too.
10. Harry Reid (33)
Senate Majority Leader
The son of an alcoholic miner from Searchlight, Nevada, Reid became the master of the Senate after Democrats won both houses of Congress in 2006. Two years later, he found himself sitting on a filibuster-proof 60 to 40 majority with a President determined to ram home the Democratic agenda.
He spearheaded an ambitious agenda, including the $787 billion economic stimulus package enacted in February 2009, healthcare reform and drawing down troops from an Iraq war that Reid declared “lost” in April 2007 even as President George W. Bush’s surge was succeeding and bringing relative peace to the country. Reid, a Mormon, is a relative moderate but has become a hate figure for conservatives for his withering attacks on Republicans – he compared those who opposed healthcare reform to those who had wanted to keep slavery.
Although he has brought back lots of “bacon” to Nevada and kept nuclear waste out of the state’s Yucca Mountain site, his poll ratings back home are terrible. Now fighting for his political life, he suffered a self-inflicted wound last week when it emerged that he had described Obama two years ago as politically viable because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” The real damage might not be not that many consider him racist but that he sounded anachronistic and out of touch. Get ready for the mother of all Senate races in Nevada – though the Republicans have yet to settle on an opponent – as liberals and conservatives pour cash into the state for what will become a grudge match.
11. Michelle Obama (48)
Michelle Obama is the first black First Lady in American history but the Princeton and Harvard Law graduate has made it a point to publicly state her top White House priority as being a good mother to daughters Malia and Sasha. That announcement ruffled the liberal feathers of some who might have seen her taking on a more aggressive policy role as Hillary Clinton once did. And despite some early campaign mistakes – such as commenting that her husband’s election made her proud to be an American for the first time in her life – her focus on affordable fashion, healthy eating underscored by an organic garden on the White House lawn, and a more accessible personal style has endeared her to Americans and the world. She received rave reviews for her genuine, informal style on a UK trip – including a welcomed breach of Royal protocol by touching the Queen – where she visited a girls’ school in London’s East End.
Mrs Obama also has met American military families frequently and has worked hard to encourage the tradition of public service in the US. But it hasn’t all been First Lady Lite. Passionate on the issue of healthcare reform, last summer she addressed a meeting of health-care workers at a Washington, D.C. clinic stating, “The current system is economically unsustainable, and I don’t have to tell any of you that.”
12. Arianna Huffington (16)
publisher of Huffington Post
Greek-born Arianna Huffington has been a California gubernatorial candidate, author, talk show host, actress, and political commentator. But it is as publisher of the Huffington Post, launched in 2005, that this political chameleon has been thrust into the most influential role of her life. Last year, Huffington was number 12 in Forbes magazine’s premiere list of the Most Influential Women In Media. A top destination for high-profile bloggers – many of them are Huffington’s friends – the Huff Post, as it is known, provides coverage of world news, politics, media, business, entertainment, and style from a progressive point of view. In the past few years, Huffington’s stances have been to the Left of the Democratic party and she was strongly pro-Obama in the 2008 campaign. Since he came to office, however, she has often criticised him for being too centrist.
13. Sonia Sotomayor (-)
Supreme Court Justice
The first Latino and the third woman to be nominated to the US Supreme Court, Sotomayor took her seat on the nation’s highest bench in August of last year after a far less contentious confirmation process than many had anticipated. A frequent speech giver and strong advocate of Hispanic and minority rights, her toughest questioning came over a remark in a speech about the superiority of the “wise Latina”, which produced outrage among some Republicans over potential identity- based judicial decision-making. But Sotomayor backed off her statement, describing it as “a rhetorical flourish that fell flat” and rejecting the notion that any group “has an advantage in sound judgment” over another.
One of her main detractors on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, concluded that Sotomayor’s judicial decisions were not outside the mainstream and complimented her on her success in the legal profession suggesting that might she even be open-minded enough to support finding a fundamental right to possess firearms under the Constitution – a right she might not want for herself. Will be shaping the law long after Obama has retired from politics.
14. Denis McDonough (-)
Acting Chief of Staff, National Security Council
McDonough has emerged as a major voice within the White House and was a key player in the eventual decision to spend 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan. A foreign policy adviser to former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, and one of several ex-Daschle staffers to join Obama early on, he was a senior fellow at the liberal Centre for American Progress think tank, which has seen a major exodus to the administration.
He is trusted as a commonsense voice but fellow traveller with the president on issues such as poverty and global warming. He also opposed the Iraq war from the start, and was among Obama’s foremost foreign policy advisers on the campaign. Starting life in the White House as NSC communications director, where he helped write major foreign policy speeches for the president, he was a natural choice to replace Mark Lippert who left the administration for US Naval Reserve duty. In on all the important decisions, expect McDonagh to rise and rise within the Obama administration.
15. Janet Napolitano (-)
Secretary of Homeland Security
Valued by Democrats for her management skills developed as a former Governor of Arizona, Arizona Attorney General and law firm partner, Napolitano was a popular party choice for Secretary of Homeland Security, made up of 22 separate agencies with the main mission of preventing terrorist attacks against the US – despite her lack of any national security credentials. But her comment the day after the Christmas Day terrorist attempt on a plane bound for Detroit that “the system worked” led to widespread ridicule – she will be saddled with it forever. Despite the call for heads to roll, Obama has stood by Napolitano and everyone else on his team. Nicknamed “Big Sis” by conservatives, she is a big Republican target.
16. Mark Warner (22)
Senator for Virginia
Fresh-faced, wealthy rich, personable and a moderate from a purple state with a successful spell as Governor under his belt, Mark Warner could well be the next Democratic president. In 2008 he took the Senate seat vacated by Republican John Warner (no relation), after flirting with a presidential run. He had left office as governor of Virginia with 70 per cent approval ratings, having put the state on course to fiscal stability with various indirect tax rises.
He was an early supporter of Barack Obama, sharing the president’s call for a new civility in politics. “The challenges we face are much more about the future versus the past and as long as we face that future and avoid the political divisions of the past, there is nothing we can’t accomplish as Americans first and foremost,” he said in his acceptance speech. More moderate than Obama, watch to see if Warner distances himself from the President. He would be a likely vice-presidential candidate should Biden’s services be dispensed with in 2012 (though Democrats would not want a special Senate election in Virginia). A lacklustre speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, however, showed he may need to work on his big stage skills.
17. Robert Gibbs (-)
White House Press Secretary
A journeyman Senate aide who became a trusted Obama campaign hand when he lucked out by landing on Barack Obama’s Senate race in 2004. Gibbs, just 38, is unusual as a press secretary because he is a bona fide member of the Obama inner circle of five or so confidants. He has been described by the Washington Post as “the Barack Whisperer”. The Alabaman is highly partisan and can be very aggressive when reporters get on the wrong side of him – some were banned from the campaign plane in 2008.
A sports nuts – one of the ways he bonded with Obama – he loves baseball and basketball metaphors. When Fox News’s Sean Hannity suggested “guilty by association” regarding Obama’s connection to Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground co-founder, Gibbs asked Hannity whether having an anti-Semite on his show made him anti-Semitic. It was an impressive performance and briefly had the voluble Hannity stumped. Few effective press secretaries are especially liked by the press and Gibbs is no exception. Some, however, believe he takes defending his boss too far and warn that he could lose the trust of the media that played such a big part in getting Obama elected.
18. Barney Frank (31)
Regarded by Democrats as one of their biggest stars in the House and the only politician who truly understands what went wrong in the subprime mortgage debacle. Republicans grudgingly respect his intellect and combative spirit. Frank, Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District representative since 1980, has been a consistently ultra-liberal voice in Washington. He came to real national prominence in 2008 after his leading role in getting Congress to pass the controversial $700 billion financial rescue package, which allowed the US Treasury to buy up bad mortgage securities in an effort to stimulate financial credit. Republicans noted that Frank’s boyfriend had been a Fannie Mae executive at the forefront of the agency’s push to relax lending restrictions. Heavy criticism was levied at Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee since 2007, for supporting the bailout package. Frank has suggested suing the insurance giant AIG to recoup millions of dollars in executive bonuses.
Frank was the first openly gay member of the House when he arrived in 1981 and has been an outspoken advocate of gay rights. In 1991, he received an official reprimand for reflecting “discredit upon the House” after paying a male prostitute for sex and later making him a personal aide and moving him into his house. Frank is regarded as one of the Congress’s sharpest wits and most eloquent speakers. When a constituent at a town hall meeting in Dartmouth, Massachusetts asked him why he was “supporting this Nazi policy” on healthcare he responded: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” Before continuing that she was spewing “vile, contemptible nonsense”, he concluded: “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.”
19. John Kerry (37)
Senator for Massachusetts
Was angling to be Secretary of State but Obama turned to Hillary Clinton. Instead, he had to settle for Joe Biden’s old job of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – an ideal post for the verbose and self-regarding Kerry.
Apart from pushing the administration’s overseas agenda in Congress, Kerry was called in to broker a deal in Afghanistan between Hamid Karzai and his election rivals. The fact that Obama turned to him was a testament to his background, experience and contacts in the international sphere – and won him many brownie points in Obamaland. Democrats seldom treat losing presidential candidates well and Kerry has suffered for his 2004 loss. Despite endorsing Obama at a critical early stage just before the South Carolina primary, he got no big job in the administration but would be a natural pick to succeed Clinton in a second Obama term.
After five Senate terms, his self-declared great mission is reversing climate change. “There is no way possible for the US to be secure against terrorism unless we free ourselves from fossil fuel,” he said in 2008. But he has his work cut out in pushing energy reform through the Senate.
20. Eric Holder (-)
It has been a momentous first year for the nation’s top legal officer. In selecting to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 suspects in New York he invited storms of protest from Republicans, though not, so far, from a majority of New Yorkers themselves.
His tenure has been marked by the tricky act of balancing Obama’s campaign commitments to openness with the hard realities of national security. In contrast to the terror trial decision, a stack of new photographs of prisoner abuse by US military personnel will not be shown to the public and Bush-era CIA interrogators will not be prosecuted – as many on the Left demand. Holder is no stranger to controversy, having faced fierce criticism for pardoning the fugitive Marc Rich in the final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when he was deputy attorney general. His experience then led him to state he was “done with public office”, but he always coveted the top Justice job and Obama plucked him from private practice to become America’s first black Attorney General.
His decision to put the 9/11 suspects through the criminal justice system had Obama’s full support but could be a public relations disaster waiting to happen. Anything short of the maximum sentences will play badly with the public, particularly in the wake of the underwear bomber’s botched attempt to blow up a flight to Detroit. If any of the defendants walk free then Obama could be rendered a one-term president virtually overnight.