Three things you should know about Rob Nabors:
1. He loves lists, thinks in lists, breaks down plans of action into lists.
2. He prizes discretion and despises leaks, which is why Republicans say they can trust this Democrat. (And probably explains why he declined to comment for this piece.)
3. He may be the most important player you’ve never heard of in the ongoing “fiscal cliff” drama.
President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) made headlines on Sunday when they spoke directly about the fiscal cliff, but it’s Nabors, who is Obama’s chief congressional liaison, who’s in the closed-door negotiations that pave the way for such conversations — and deals.
“He’s our Congress whisperer,” says David Plouffe, a senior Obama adviser, of the famously soft-spoken Nabors. “Rob’s got a great instinct for where the deal lies, what Democrats are willing to do, what Republicans are willing to do. He’ll say, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here are what the odds are of success.’ He doesn’t ever paint a rosier picture than exists.”
The wonkish 41-year-old Nabors is also wading into the weeds of any potential fiscal cliff deal.
“It’s clear when you talk to Rob that he’s not someone just reporting the news at 1600 [Pennsylvania Avenue]; he’s helping to make the news at 1600,” says Mike Sommers, Boehner’s chief of staff.
“He is very methodical and takes you through things point by point,” says David Krone, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s chief of staff. “And if it is a point that is a priority [for the president], he makes that clear.”
Nabors traveled to Capitol Hill with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner late last month to discuss the fiscal cliff with members of Congress. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) was one of those present. While Geithner was there as the president’s proxy, it was Nabors who was critical to explaining the president’s position. Hoyer recalls that “Geithner frankly said, ‘Rob is here for the details.’ ”
At which point Nabors started to tick off a list of key components.
Learning to fit in
Growing up, it wasn’t always easy being the son of a highly decorated Army major general who was moved from post to post to post. Nabors was the new kid in 15 different schools before entering college. His childhood spanned three foreign countries (Italy, Germany and South Korea) and six states that ran the gamut from blue to red (Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia).
Each time he moved to a new place, Nabors would pick up whatever sport ruled the day with the locals: football in the States, soccer in Europe. (He’s a Tottenham Hotspur fan.)
“Rob is a person of significant ability, and he’s always figured out how to fit in,” says Cassandra Butts, former deputy counsel to the Obama White House.
Nabors was finally able to settle in for four years in Notre Dame, Ind., where he began his college studies in 1989. Like many of his classmates, Nabors would become a fierce, lifelong fan of the school’s football team. His passion for the blue-and-gold would be an asset: Sommers displays a big Fighting Irish sign in his office; colleagues with competing loyalties know to expect e-mails from Nabors after big matchups.
As an undergraduate, Nabors focused on government and computer applications. His studies ultimately led him to enroll as a PhD student in the University of North Carolina’s political science program. He didn’t complete the program (he earned a master’s), but he came away with something else: an understanding of Robert Keohane, the highly influential international relations scholar, says Nabors’s former UNC adviser, Thomas Oatley. Keohane’s focus was on the global arena but would foreshadow what would lie ahead in Washington.
“Even among pure egoists, cooperation can ‘emerge’ if a large enough initial cluster of potential cooperators exists,” Keohane wrote in “After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy,” his seminal book. “Ignorance of how to promote cooperation can lead to discord, conflict, and economic disaster before cooperation ever has a chance to prevail.”
Nabors would put Keohane’s theories to the test when he moved to Washington in 1996, where he first took a post as an examiner at President Bill Clinton’s White House Office of Management and Budget. His ability to handle complex projects and to help drive decision-making caught the attention of former OMB director Jack Lew (now Obama’s chief of staff), who quickly promoted him. Nabors next moved to the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2001 and quickly rose to become the first African American staff director on the House Appropriations Committee, working for seven years for David Obey, who was the top Democrat on the panel and was as fiery as Nabors is level-headed.