One day two weeks ago, Stephanie Cutter blasted out ten Tweets, eight of them aggressively pushing the narrative that had become popularly known as the “War on Women.” (The Republican war, that is.) There was ample evidence for Cutter, one of Obama’s deputy campaign managers, to choose from: cuts to Planned Parenthood, mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, and, most recently, Mitt Romney’s opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act.
It was Cutter’s 11th Tweet, however, that would get the most attention.
At around 8:45 pm, Hilary Rosen, a Democratic consultant and CNN contributor, appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show, AC360. She said that Ann Romney “had never worked a day in her life.”
Obama’s aides faced a quick choice: they could could ignore the comment, and risk a slow erosion the ground that the they’d gained with women; or they could pour accelerant on the flames, and hope it burned out fast.
That night, as it happened, the 43-year-old Cutter was meeting with senior advisor David “Axe” Axelrod and campaign manager Jim Messina in a regularly scheduled weekly sitdown in Chicago. As the head of communications, Cutter’s portfolio included figuring out how to deal with the latest micro-crisis — and in this case, she stuck to Twitter. The three agreed on how to respond: Messina and Axe both put out Tweets condemning Rosen’s comment, with Cutter driving the point home, in a simple, powerful reply to Messina’s message: “Families must be off limits on campaigns, and i personally believe stay at home moms work harder than most of us do.”
The next morning, Cutter re-tweeted a note from Michelle Obama, hitting the same notes.
Within 72 hours, the flare up had passed, leaving only mild scarring.
But Cutter’s central role in damage control that night wasn’t unusual. Though the campaign’s outward faces are male, she’s one of three deputy campaign managers at Obama’s headquarters in Chicago, and all three are women. The other two —Julianna Smoot, who handles fundraising, and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, in charge of field operations — are in equally key spots.
“The guts, the mechanics, of the president’s campaign are driven by women,” DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz tells BuzzFeed. “It says something about the president’s commitment to women, and to making sure women really have a seat at the table.”
Wasserman Schultz — or DWS as she’s referred to in shorthand among staffers — is the first woman chair of the Democratic National Committee in more than a decade, appointed by Obama last year. She’s also been the target of sniping from some of Obama’s aides though not, perhaps notably, from his deputy campaign managers.
The trio’s internal power stands in stark contrast to Obamaland’s reputation as a “boys club,” the nickname — despised in the White House — for the president’s back-slapping inner circle of male advisors. Certainly, the campaign leadership is not lacking in testosterone — Axe, with his closet of goofy looking sweaters gives off a patriarchal vibe, while Messina occasionally enjoys a crude (and, admittedly, funny) joke.
The men in Obamaland are said to enjoy the sound of their own voices, and the look of their names in print. Axe, according to aides, has a team helping him manage his Twitter account, relishing out-clevering his opponents online. Messina, too, is currently embroiled in a 140 character feud with Republican National Committee officials. (Messina currently blocks RNC political director Rick Wiley on Twitter; Wiley has launched a campaign to force Messina to unblock, having RNC interns tweet at him daily. Messina has held his ground.)
The deputy campaign managers, however, have sought and drawn little attention. But the women are making some of the key choices, if getting less of the credit.
“The boys club narrative is just not true,” one Obama campaign official tells me. “I really hope you’re not writing a story about Boy’s Club 2.0.”
In fact, you could easily say there’s now “a girls club,” as one former Obama staffer put it. Cutter, Smoot, and O’Malley Dillon all did stints in the White House or at the DNC— where in one tense meeting, the president himself sought to assuage women’s complaints about the imbalances at the top — transitioning from their jobs in the 2008 campaign. During that time, they bonded during monthly women’s night out dinners, according to Jen Psaki, a former White House official and friend to the three women. “There’s a really strong bond between the women in the White House,” says Psaki. “They are a support network within themselves.”
The dinners were usually made up of about a dozen or so women, the most senior in the White House, deputies and assistants to the presidential level. They’d “talk about policy, sometimes shoes,” says Psaki, with a laugh. “There wasn’t any set agenda. It was more to build those relationships.”
Perhaps most impressively, all three women have survived what DWS calls “the rough and tumble business” of politics where you need “skin as thick as an alligator.”
Cutter joined John Kerry’s 2004 campaign and helped him refocus his message to win Iowa. But following the devastating loss to George W. Bush, she was hammered by the press and trashed by some of her colleagues, an experience that left lasting emotional scars, according to her friends. She came back with vengeance in 2008, turning around Michelle Obama’s image, as Jodi Kantor recounts in her book “The Obamas,” and selling Sonia Sotomayor to the Senate and the country, and later heading the attempt to salvage the president’s health care initiative.
34-year-old Jennifer O’Malley Dillon came from the world of disgraced politician John Edwards. A political fanatic—she started volunteering to work on political campaigns in her late teens and early twenties—she rose through the ranks, landing as a field director for some of the most contested states for Obama in 2008. This year, she was named one Time’s 40 most influential leaders under 40. A fan of celebrity gossip and The Sound of Music, she’s regarded as “a brilliant tactician and manager,” says Psaki.
Within the Chicago headquarters, O’Malley Dillon is considered the principal deputy. When Messina’s not around, she’s tasked with running meetings and daily campaign processes. It’s also known that she speaks for Messina without having to actually talk to him, independently signing-off on high-level decisions.
Smoot, 44, head of fundraising, is one of the all time greats at getting folks to give up cash for politicians. She was also one of the first to work for president Obama in 2007, when there were “just two phones” in the office, recalls Psaki. Like O’Malley Dillon, Smoot is another refugee from the John Edwards experience — she was with him during his time in the Senate and had her first encounter with scandal in the aftermath of his 2004 campaign, when the FBI reportedly interviewed her in the course of an investigation of trial lawyer donors later charged with giving more than the legal amount. (Just this week, her name was on a list of witnesses for the former candidate’s trial.)
In 2008, she played a central role in Obama’s early, turbocharged fundraising, and
before taking the job in Chicago, she served as the White House Social Secretary. Elle magazine named her one of top ten powerful women in DC, noting her penchant for J.C. Crew cardigans.
The women, too, have served as inspirations for a slightly younger generation of women, says Psaki. “They’re tough but also the kind… They pump people up,” rather than tear them down, she says. One young female campaign official called Cutter “her idol”—for the ability to be both successful, respected, and, yes, occasionally “mean.” Another staffer tells me the three are basically “badasses.”
It’s an assessment Messina agrees with: “Jen, Julianna, and Stephanie have shared traits – their deep institutional knowledge of campaigns, the breadth of their relationships with leaders and activists across the country, and their strategic insight that allows them to keep their eye on the prize.”
CORRECTION: The first female chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee was Jean Westwood, in 1972, not Debbie Wasserman Schultz. An earlier version of the post also implied O’Malley Dillon worked at the White House; she was the executive director of the DNC.