Profile of White House Cousel Bob Bauer (NY Times 7/5/10)
The White House counsel Bob Bauer, here in a meeting with the president and other aides, helped develop a nomination strategy.
Even before he went to work for President Obama, Bob Bauer was plotting strategy for the next Supreme Court confirmation.
This was December, and Mr. Bauer, a campaign finance law expert and close confidant of the president, had just been named White House counsel. The former counsel, Gregory Craig, had not yet moved out of his West Wing office when Mr. Bauer bounded in, eager to take the pulse of his soon-to-be colleagues about the lessons of last year’s confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
From those discussions, senior officials say, a strategy emerged: Strict secrecy around the president’s deliberations would be essential. Advocacy groups would get a fresh reminder not to float names in the press. The White House would be more aggressive about responding to attacks on potential nominees, to avoid the kind of fracas that erupted over the “wise Latina” remarks by Ms. Sotomayor, then a federal appeals court judge.
Now, as Mr. Obama nears a decision on a replacement for Justice John Paul Stevens, that strategy is playing out, seemingly according to Mr. Bauer’s careful plan.
Four leading candidates — federal appeals court Judges Merrick Garland, Sidney R. Thomas and Diane P. Wood, as well as Solicitor General Elena Kagan — have already been interviewed by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (and separately, by Mr. Bauer). The White House has kept a tight lid on the sessions; the meetings have been kept off the president’s public schedule, and the candidates have slipped in and out unnoticed.
Advocacy groups like the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way have been mum, and unflattering news reports have been quickly knocked down. When a blogger published unsubstantiated assertions about a candidate on the CBS News Web site, aides to the president complained so vigorously that the author acknowledged repeating rumors and the network ultimately removed the post.
“The key here,” said one senior official, speaking anonymously to discuss internal strategy, ‘’is to preserve the political viability of all the president’s possible choices and ensure that they aren’t destroyed by the interest groups and the media before the president has a chance to make a decision.”
The man behind this aggressive effort is Mr. Bauer, a curly-haired, bespectacled 58-year-old who blends wry humor (his pun-offs with Obama senior adviser David Axelrod are legendary in the White House) with political savvy and legal smarts. The son of a prominent Austrian anti-Nazi lawyer and a Czech Jew who immigrated to the United States before he was born, Mr. Bauer has spent decades carving out a niche for himself as the Democrats’ go-to guy for campaign finance and ethics advice.
When President Bill Clinton was facing impeachment, Mr. Bauer provided invaluable legal advice to the House and Senate Democratic leadership. “Nobody wanted to miss the Bauer briefings,” said Tom Daschle, the Democratic Senate leader at the time. And Mr. Bauer’s book on campaign finance, “Soft Money, Hard Law,” is a must-read for lawyers in the field, as was the blog he published for years under the same name.
“He’s kind of an institution in Washington,” Mr. Axelrod said.
His election law expertise has come in handy for Mr. Obama, who has been attacking the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for its decision in Citizens United, which lifted limits on corporate spending to influence elections. Mr. Obama has upbraided the court for overturning “decades of law and precedent” — a message that Mr. Bauer, who filed an amicus brief for the Democratic National Committee in the case, has helped to shape.
Advocates of campaign finance reform have not always been big fans of Mr. Bauer, who took a dim view of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Law, which barred political parties from receiving unregulated “soft money” contributions. But once the law passed, colleagues say, Mr. Bauer quickly found a way to exploit it by helping so-called 527 groups to flourish using soft money of their own.
“McCain-Feingold created the loophole, which Bob drove a Mack truck through,” said Ben Ginsberg, who represents Republicans on campaign finance matters. “It was pioneering work and robust free speech when his clients needed an outlet besides the parties.”
As counsel to Mr. Obama’s campaign in 2008, Mr. Bauer was a calm, steady presence. “He is the legal embodiment of the ‘No Drama Obama’ culture,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama’s communications director.
Still, he was capable of drama when the job required it. On the night of the Texas primaries, Mr. Obama’s team learned that the rival campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton was planning a conference call to allege voting irregularities. Mr. Bauer dialed in on the call, which was supposed to be for reporters only, catching Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton strategist, off guard. Mr. Bauer was tough, yet polite — so much so that Mr. Wolfson actually spelled his name for the press.
“He did a bold thing,” Mr. Wolfson said, “in a low-key way.”
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Bauer is generally well regarded, especially by Democrats, although Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did complain that Mr. Bauer is tough to reach. “I’ve called him three times, never got a call back,” Mr. Hatch said. “First time in 34 years that the counsel to the president hasn’t returned my calls.”
In the coming months, Mr. Hatch may have another chance; although the counsel’s job is typically to provide the president in-house legal advice, Mr. Bauer has a broader mandate and will oversee the entire Supreme Court confirmation effort. He is “the coach,” Mr. Axelrod said, of a team that includes communications strategists and legislative affairs specialists, as well as the usual coterie of lawyers who are responsible for drafting dossiers on the various candidates.
“There are some lawyers who work for political figures and they’re pure lawyers,” said Steven Elmendorf, a one-time House leadership aide who worked closely with Mr. Bauer during the Clinton impeachment. “Bob has the political focus as well as the legal focus.”
It does not hurt that he is married to one of the Democratic Party’s top strategists, Anita Dunn, Mr. Obama’s former communications director. Ms. Dunn, who left the White House as Mr. Bauer was moving in, will also have a role in the Supreme Court confirmation process, coordinating the efforts of liberal advocacy groups in support of Mr. Obama’s eventual nominee.
Unlike his wife, whose job required her to be the public face of the administration, Mr. Bauer has purposely kept a low profile. He has declined all interviews. Mr. Axelrod insists the administration is not keeping him under wraps; he says Mr. Bauer is simply too busy.
“Honestly, this guy’s day is filled with work,” Mr. Axelrod said. “He’s not a self-promoter. I know that makes him unusual in this town, but it also makes him effective.”