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March 1, 2012

Stephanie Cutter: "I Know How to Throw a Punch"

Behind the buttery highlights and geek glasses is one of the fiercest strategists in politics. Meet the Obama campaign's head rumor-killer, message-crafter, and human bulldozer.

stephanie cutter

Photo Credit: Ryan Pfluger

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There are moments on the campaign trail when everything goes wrong. An attack takes the candidate unawares. One adviser is on a plane and unreachable, while two others are feuding about whether to ignore the charge or beat it back. Meanwhile, the press is demanding answers and sounding alarms. The campaign is in free fall.

It's for just these moments that a campaign keeps an enforcer on hand: someone fearless and unflappable, someone who will step up, take charge, and, if needed, take the blame. For President Barack Obama, that someone is Stephanie Cutter.

Cutter, 43, a deputy campaign manager for Obama-Biden 2012, has been with the Obamas since 2008, when she started out as Michelle's chief of staff, and is one of the most respected communications strategists in Washington. "Politics gets me out of bed in the morning," she tells Marie Claire at her office in Obama's Chicago re-election headquarters. "It's what really interests me. I'm a competitor, but I also feel like I'm contributing, whether it's working on health-care policy in the White House or out here in Chicago."

Having just moved out from Washington a week before, she is already knee-deep in the hour-to-hour mini crises that define campaign life. She doesn't get home to her newly rented apartment until 9 or 10 p.m. (Cutter is unmarried; her dog, a rescue named Sammy, has a dog walker.) She grabs a few hours' sleep, rises at 5 a.m., and gets in a quick workout. Then it all starts again.

Asked how she's made it to the highest ranks of politics — in 2012, still a boys' club packed with locker-room personalities — Cutter demures. "I have no idea how it happened," she says with a little laugh. "I know I worked hard." (An associate, on the other hand, knows exactly how she did it: "She's a bulldozer when she needs to be.")

Cutter grew up in a politically active family in Raynham, Massachusetts, where she and her two brothers were treated as equals. "My brother got a .22 for his 12th birthday; I got a .22. He got a hunting knife; I got a hunting knife," Cutter says. Her attraction to public service goes back as long as she can remember. In high school, she canvassed the lunchroom for donations for the famine in Ethiopia. She graduated from Smith College, where she was also politically active. (Her college pal Julianna Smoot is one of two other deputy campaign managers for Obama.)

After graduating, Cutter marched into the offices of New York Governor Mario Cuomo, an idol of hers who was considering a presidential run of his own, and cold-pitched his staff on hiring her. "And that was my first job: answering his phones," she says. Soon she was promoted to speechwriter, and when Cuomo bowed out of the 1992 presidential race, she was snapped up by Bill Clinton's campaign. Afterward, she worked as a spokeswoman at the Environmental Protection Agency — which at the time was under assault from then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — and eventually worked her way up to deputy communications director at the White House, where she handled President Clinton's daily message.

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