Power Paradigm

Illustration by JC Suarès
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It’s a Federal City, but the private sector still calls many of the shots in Obama-era Washington

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The first challenge every newly arrived foreign ambassador to Washington faces is to discover where the power is. The White House is the focal point, of course, but beyond that, power is vested in a complex dynamic of forces, some elected, some institutional, and some personal.

Since the exercise of political power is the main reason for being in Washington at all, it’s important to learn to separate the powerful from the impostors as quickly as possible. This is not just true for ambassadors; it’s a prerequisite for anyone hoping to do any kind of business in the District of Columbia.

To follow is Washington Life’s own list of key players in the Washington power elite, including some clues on how to separate the real thing from the wannabes. As , who knew something about the exercise of power, once observed: “Being powerful is like being a lady, if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Not included are senators, congressmen, and other government officials because the power that they exercise derives more or less from their office or position. It’s the surrounding landscape that can be mystifying.

This is where lobbyists come in. In guiding clients through the bureaucratic and congressional labyrinths – physical and mental – the denizens of K Street, which famously houses Washington’s top lobbying firms, have themselves acquired power in their own right.

These days, it’s fashionable in administration circles, when mentioning lobbyists, to wrinkle the nose as though recoiling from the stink of long dead fish. In keeping with his vow in 2007 to take back government from the lobbyists, “who think they own it,” President Obama has introduced stiffer ethics rules to limit their clout. Republican presidential candidate called lobbyists “birds of prey.” Still, so far, there are few signs that this entrenched sector of Washington activity is withering.

“Obama’s massive agenda, designed to boost the economy and increase jobs, has actually created more lobbying opportunities, not reduced them,” one Washington lobbyist observes. Lobbyists know what buttons need to be pushed here in order to get things done – or to stop something from getting done.

For example, many cities and states hoping to get some of the stimulus cash offered by the administration find they need help navigating the topography of Washington’s bureaucracy. When it comes to health care, shaping the president’s planned reforms will inevitably involve negotiating with the sector’s powerful lobbyists, several of them women – , who heads America’s Health Insurance Plans, the main lobby for the insurance companies, and of the Healthcare Leadership Council, to name but two.

So, while the present administration strives to limit their maneuvering room, top lobbyists like , , Vernon Jordan, former Republican House Majority Leader , ex-Sen. , and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole remain a force to be reckoned with. Ditto Virginia Republican who, after three decades in the Senate, is returning to Hogan and Hartson, the legal/lobbying firm where he once worked.

In other respects, Washington’s power landscape is going through one of its periodic changes, of which the recent election is, at the same time, both the catalyst and at the result. One way that Obama has acknowledged the significant shift of power in the media is by upsetting the time-honored pecking order of questioners during his press conferences.

In the White House, old journalism must now compete with new journalism. Gone is presidential deference to mainstream TV networks, newspapers, and wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press. In recent press conferences, the president has invited questions from the world of websites and blogs such as ’s Huffington Post website, and Politico.com. But Obama has also mixed and matched liberal and conservative journalists, dining privately with small groups, including ABC’s , syndicated columnist , and New York Times columnists and .

Meanwhile, the global economic turndown and America’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression are testing the Obama Administration’s power to bring the financial chaos under control, and to turn the situation around. Political power, not banks, is Washington’s business, but the District has its share of influential voices when it comes to finance, notably , who heads the billion dollar Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, and Richard Fairbank, founder of Capital One Financial Corp.

There’s also , the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund, which has emerged from the current economic crisis with a great deal more money, and potentially more power, than ever before. (This is somewhat less so of the World Bank.) The leading industrial nations are committed to giving the IMF $1 trillion to lend to financially strapped countries.

Washington also has heavy hitters in the business sector – notably the high-tech denizens of Tyson’s Corner, and health and biotech entrepreneurs. ’s Rockville-based Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics did seminal work in mapping the DNA. ’s United Therapeutics is a booming Silver Spring biotech company focused on medication for chronic cardiovascular and infectious diseases. Steve Case, a founder of AOL, remains an influential Washington fixture despite the decreased fortunes of that firm. , co-founder of BET, and co-owner of the Washington Mystics, is America’s first African American female billionaire.

No cultural wasteland, Washington has become an important theater city, with ’s Kennedy Center and ’s expanded Shakespeare Theatre Company at its center, leading by example but certainly not alone in either artistic excellence or innovation. Example: at the Signature Theatre in Shirlington artistic director commissioned a musical version of ’s novel Giant, by the composer – which will run through May.

In music, Washington National Opera musical director ’s clout extends over the entire operatic world. And while the name of the indefatigable and sometimes controversial , the Post’s music critic, is not music to everyone’s ears, her tireless coverage has drawn attention to the breadth and scope of Washington’s musical activity.

As the relatively new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, ’s authority extends over the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research units, a nationally distributed magazine, and 140 affiliate museums worldwide. While Earl “Rusty” Powell, director of the National Gallery, may only run one museum, but he does it with panache.

Powell, it seems, also understands Washington. In late June, the museum will stage a unique exhibition of historic armor from Spain combined with Old Master portraits of kings and princes actually wearing it. The National Gallery calls this display of late Renaissance machismo “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain.”

Nowhere are such symbols of power better understood than in Washington. The finely crafted suit of armor of centuries past is today’s private plane, chauffeur-driven limousine, or seat in the owner’s box at Fedex Field. The message is the same.

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