"It was a career-ending article," says one Democratic operative not affiliated with the Obama campaign. "The fact that it not only didn't end her career but she's now basically running the country -- it's impressive."
Cutter, in the magazine's account, was tagged with the decision not to respond more forcefully to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks -- what many regarded as the campaign's fatal mistake. Reporters took issue with her blunt manner, while fellow campaign staffers viewed her as controlling and difficult. "Kerry staffers snidely made a verb of her e-mail name (email@example.com)," according to Newsweek. "'To Scutter' meant to try to control or dominate. Its second meaning was cruder, 'to f--- something up.'"
Cutter declined to be interviewed for this story. But those close to her complain she was scapegoated for a failure that had many authors.
"She was unfairly blamed for the Kerry loss," said one friend who worked with Cutter both in 2004 and at the Obama White House. "There were a lot of knives stabbed in her back because people needed someone to blame -- 'Kerry lost to Bush? How could that possibly happen?' This town needs to pump people up and then crush them down, and this is a case of that."
Shrum, who was Kerry's chief strategist and a Cutter ally, insisted to me the Newsweek account got it backwards: "She pressed for us, and she was right, to answer the Swift Boat thing sooner than we did," he said. "There were people who wanted her job, so there was a lot of static. We had a period at the end of August, beginning of September, when the knives were out for everybody. ... All you have to do is look what [Cutter has] done since then to understand how wrong all those people were."
Cutter was devastated by the Newsweek portrayal. But even some of her detractors were impressed by how she responded. Rather than taking the criticism personally, she used the episode as an occasion for soul-searching, and resolved to work her way back.
Democratic strategist Karen Finney said Cutter, whom she counts among her closest friends, impressed people with her professionalism in the wake of the 2004 debacle.
"I give her a lot of credit. She said, 'What can I learn from this to be a better professional?' I think she really grew, and that's why people really respect her now and she has such a strong reputation."
"After that [Kerry] campaign was over, she knuckled down and went to work," said an Obama adviser and presidential veteran who is not close to Cutter. "She apologized to people for her behavior and rebuilt her reputation from the ground up. ... After the 2004 election, nobody would have ever thought Stephanie Cutter would be the most prominent campaign surrogate for a sitting president of the United States."
Cutter went back her pre-campaign job with Sen. Kennedy, her longtime political mentor and patron. During the 2008 campaign, she was brought into the Obamas' orbit originally as Michelle Obama's chief of staff; after the inauguration, she came into the administration as an adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In their way, these jobs were a comedown for Cutter -- not working for the nominee, not working at the White House -- but her determination to stay in the game and willingness to be useful where she could, along with the seriousness and intensity she brought to the posts, impressed colleagues. The White House brought her in to coordinate Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, then tasked her with heading up its communications strategy for the health-care reform bill in 2010. Last year, she left her post as a communications adviser in the White House to join the reelection effort.