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A close-knit inner circle

The 'Friends of Barack' include neighbors and classmates -- some of whom might follow him to Washington.

November 09, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Nicholas is a Times staff writer.

CHICAGO — At a tense point in Barack Obama's campaign, his closest friends got together and decided that, whatever it took, they would make him laugh.

It was early May, and Obama was trying to stave off a comeback by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Chatting privately with the candidate before a late-night stop in Indiana, Marty Nesbitt, Valerie Jarrett and Eric Whitaker started riffing about how utterly draining the campaign had been. They began laughing and couldn't stop -- until strategist David Axelrod walked up with a set of distressing poll numbers.

"We were telling stories and teasing him and trying to lighten the mood," Jarrett recalled. "Then Axelrod came in and threw cold water on it. It was like, man, all that hard work!"

At the upper reaches of the Democratic Party, "FOB" used to mean "Friend of Bill," as in Clinton. With Obama's victory on Tuesday, "FOB" is the new acronym for the close-knit corps of Chicago neighbors, graduate school classmates, pickup basketball teammates and family friends of the incoming president.

A few Friends of Barack are likely to follow him to the White House, Jarrett being the most probable candidate. Others expect to stay close to Obama through the thicket of personal and business ties that have evolved over decades.

The Obama inner circle is largely a high-achieving group of professionals clustered around Chicago. They vacation with the president-elect's family; play Scrabble with Obama and his wife, Michelle; and stay in touch by e-mail and at dinner parties when time permits.

Some played advisory roles in the campaign, sitting with the candidate at the front of his plane and serving as sounding boards and confidants.

Nesbitt is one of Obama's intimates, referred to by a mutual friend as "FOB #1." Nesbitt, a resident of the Obamas' Hyde Park neighborhood, founded an off-airport parking operation called the Parking Spot and is chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority.

As with many of Obama's closest friends, he met the president-elect through Michelle's side of the family. In high school, Nesbitt was recruited by Princeton -- where Michelle's brother Craig Robinson was a standout basketball player. Nesbitt wound up going to college elsewhere, but the two became close. When Obama and Michelle began dating, Nesbitt met the new boyfriend, and a close friendship evolved.

Obama is godfather to Nesbitt's 4-year-old son. And Nesbitt's wife, a physician, delivered the Obamas' two daughters.

"There are so many connections between the two of us, it's kind of hard to pinpoint how we actually got to know each other," Nesbitt said in an interview in his downtown Chicago office.

"Our view of the world is similar. We have a lot in common. Both of our parents were divorced. My father died in his 50s. His mother died in her 50s. . . . We both went to private schools. We both went to pretty prestigious graduate schools. We both married women from the south side of Chicago."

Jarrett is both a friend and a top advisor. In her day job, she is chief executive of the Habitat Co., a large residential property manager. Friends said they would not be surprised to see her accompany Obama to Washington.

"I don't know what Valerie intends to do, but she is probably the Obamas' most trusted confidant, and she has been instrumental to Barack's success in the campaign," said Alan King, an attorney and another longtime friend of Obama. "I would expect that a President Obama would want to continue to rely on her friendship and advice."

Jarrett met Obama in the early 1990s, when she was recruiting Michelle for a job in Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration.

A measure of her influence is the in-box of Obama's BlackBerry. One time he was asking her the whereabouts of a memo. She told him she had e-mailed it to him and advised him to search for it by her name.

He tried, but then complained: "There are too many e-mails from Valerie Jarrett!"

"Oh, are you saying I'm e-mailing you too much?" Jarrett said she told him.

Teasing is a favorite pastime among the FOBs. Going to a party at the Democratic convention in Denver over the summer, Whitaker -- who is known among friends as an information junkie -- was hauling around his laptop and power cord so he could keep checking the Internet.

"We were going to a cocktail party at 10 at night. A party!" Nesbitt said. "And he had his cord and laptop." Afterward, they went to Obama's hotel suite and told him. "We cracked up, man," Nesbitt said. "Imagine the guy. His information addiction is hilarious."

Whitaker, a physician and executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center, is part of the clique of friends who play pickup basketball with Obama. He was on the court Tuesday for a friendly game before the polls closed.

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