Anita Dunn's White House Legacy

Inside the West Wing, Anita Dunn is known as the "Fairy Godmother." In keeping with the literary allusion, Dunn takes special care to make sure that even the junior-most assistant to the deputy assistant feel as if they are an integral part of the Obama administration.

At Dunn's insistence, a weekly communication strategy session was opened to any White House staffer who wanted to attend, a feat of internal transparency that, even in the Obama administration's open-sourced culture, is rare.

Dunn was recruited to be the communications director in April. When the president formally asked her to take the job, Dunn agreed, on the condition that she leave by the end of the year. Her son, Stephen, is 13 and needs his parents. The president is reported to have joked that he might not let her go.

To the public, Dunn is best known through the lens of Fox News, which she criticized for being "a wing of the Republican Party" -- and to conservatives who watch Glenn Beck's program, for her (clearly arch) citation of Chairman Mao as a favorite philosopher in a light-hearted speech to college graduates.

When Dunn took on Fox News, some Democrats wondered whether, because of her temporary status, she had been untethered and allowed to lay a marker that would not ultimately stick to the president. That theory was false. Dunn, along with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and other advisers were worried that other news outlets were taking their cues from Fox -- and that had to stop.

White House officials believe that Dunn has a praiseworthy reputation. She is one of the president's closest advisers, and even after she "leaves," Dunn will still have an open seat at the daily senior staff meeting.

"She combines being a strategic thinker with exceptional discipline and management skills," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president. "Often those two strengths don't come in the same person." Jarrett grew close to Dunn during the presidential campaign, which Dunn joined in midstream as a senior communications adviser.

As communications director, Dunn oversees strategic planning, the White House office of Media Affairs, and the speechwriting staff. She is one of a half dozen White House aides who regularly influence what the president says and how he says it.

"Her only agenda is the president's agenda. She's an honest broker and a straight shooter. No ego whatsoever. She's completely loyal and a devoted advocate for this administration. But she's also a person who's willing to say when she thinks we're making a mistake," Jarrett said

"When people feel anxious, Anita has a very tender way of putting your hand on your shoulder and saying, it's going to be all right," Jarrett said.

Dunn is married to Robert Bauer, the president's personal lawyer and former campaign general counsel. They are an unlikely Washington, D.C. power couple -- not known for hosting flashy parties or lugubrious displays of public charity.

Her successor has been her partner at the White House, Dan Pfeiffer, who will assume day-to-day responsibilities in January.

Pfeiffer is also known for his discretion and his skepticism of cable news. He was one of the few White House aides who were read in to the president's search for a Supreme Court Justice. He even participated in the interview process. More recently, he has revamped the administration's strategy to deal with the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Over the summer, the White House's Pfeifferian coolness on health care -- even as the political world was going into a tizzy -- came in for much external criticism.  The White House wasn't critical enough -- or was too critical -- or the president wasn't specific enough -- he was leaving Democrats to die on the vine at town hall meetings.

Pfeiffer, colleagues say, was among those who regularly counseled his colleagues -- and Democratic allies --- not to panic.   He and Dunn pushed to shift the president's focus from cost containment to the concerns of middle class voters who worried that they might lose their insurance or their choice of doctors under the new plan.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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