The Resurrection of Stephanie Cutter
In 2004, Kerry staffers blamed her for botching the response to the Swift Boat attacks. Now she's back -- as the aggressive face of the Obama reelection effort.
Stephanie Cutter doesn't sound angry, just exasperated. "The way these oil billionaires and their front group completely ignore the truth is breathtaking," she says. "Let's take some crazy examples from their attack ad. They claim the administration gave money to build electric cars in Finland."
Here, Cutter pauses, blinks and shakes her head: "Um, no."
It's a simple video -- just Cutter, the president's deputy campaign manager, talking to the camera with the help of some explanatory graphics, while the hubbub of the Obama campaign headquarters buzzes behind her. The campaign uploaded it to YouTube in early May as a routine rapid-response effort to rebut an anti-Obama ad produced by Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing group funded in part by the Koch brothers, that was airing in some swing states.
But the video went viral beyond the campaign's wildest dreams. It has now been viewed more than 650,000 times, making it the sixth most popular of the more than 2,000 videos uploaded by the campaign. On YouTube, it has nearly 7,000 "likes" and is followed by page upon page of cheering comments from liberals excited to see the fight being taken to the other side. "'We're gonna call their BS when we see it.' I love her!" reads one.
Rank-and-file Democrats, it seems, have found a new champion in the very aptly named Cutter, who is increasingly visible as the Obama team's No. 1 B.S.-caller and all-around attack squad. On YouTube and cable TV, in conference calls with reporters and in memos from the campaign, she can reliably be found doing one thing: taking on Republicans and Mitt Romney.
With her blunt talk and relentless approach, Cutter epitomizes the hardball tone of the Obama re-elect. (If Obama's 2008 campaign had a viral-video mascot, by contrast, it was the mild-mannered Delawarean campaign manager David Plouffe, whose YouTube spots emphasized grassroots organizing and campaign mechanics.) It was Cutter who, in April, took issue with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus's claim that the GOP could no more be accused of waging a war on women than it could a war on caterpillars; where some might have seen an innocuous analogy, Cutter saw outrageous misogyny. The comment, she wrote in a speedily issued campaign press release, showed "how little regard leading Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have for women's health."
The 43-year-old Cutter is a Massachusetts native with middle-class roots who attended Smith College. She got her start in politics answering phones for then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, then went to work for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, becoming a communications staffer in the Clinton White House after the election (and getting a law degree at Georgetown at night).
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who got to know Cutter when she subsequently went to work for Sen. Ted Kennedy, said she was shaped by the combination of idealistic liberalism and combative maneuvering that defines Massachusetts Democratic politics.
"She's a genuine progressive, and she's a very competitive person," Shrum said in an interview. "She believes society ought to be fairer so that middle-class kids like she once was can get a break in life."
In Obamaworld, Cutter's ability to drive home a message with force and clarity is prized. "Stephanie brings the trifecta," said campaign manager Jim Messina -- "the ability to tell a simple story about complicated policy, a vast network, and a pitch-perfect political instinct. She separates what will matter to the media, and what will matter to voters, from the noise."
But Cutter's centrality to the Obama campaign is also a remarkable comeback story. Eight years ago, many doubted she would ever work in politics again after her stint as communications director for John Kerry's presidential campaign came in for a raft of criticism in the losing effort's post-election circular firing squad.
In many of the conversations I had about Cutter for this story, eventually my interlocutor would murmur: "Did you read the Newsweek story?" A harsh depiction of Cutter played a major role in the book-length election postmortem traditionally published by the magazine.
"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.
Cutter is one of three deputy managers on the Obama campaign, with a portfolio that includes the communications, research, and policy departments as well as a major voice in overall messaging strategy. While she's known as a tough boss with a forceful personality, she's prized for her strategic instincts, her attention to detail and her ability to see projects through to completion. Four different sources I interviewed for this story all independently described the same scenario to explain Cutter's value: a meeting full of self-regarding political types results in lots of promising ideas, but then everybody leaves and forgets about it; Cutter is the one who actually follows through.
"She's the kind of person who, if you are trying to get something done, if you have a problem, you want her in the foxhole with you," said Jen Psaki, a former deputy White House communications director. "She's tough, she's focused, and she has an incredible ability to push a process and an idea forward."
She's also an effective messenger, Psaki noted -- telegenic, fluent, adept at weaving facts together with humor and argument. Those traits are on vivid display in her YouTube videos, and Obama supporters will be happy to hear she plans to keep doing them, according to the campaign. A second Cutter video, posted May 17, is titled "Get the facts on Karl Rove's BS." In it, she tells viewers that Rove's super PAC, Crossroads, has a new ad. "Time to tear this thing apart," she announces, proceeding to declare its premise "flat-out wrong."
The video has been viewed 125,000 times. In the words of one commenter: "Call em out on their crap and counter their big money spending on lies with simple honest truth. Excellent job!! Thank you Stephanie."