Smoot known as disarming, driven

This May 2008 photo shows Julianna Smoot in Chicago. Smoot brought in a record nearly $750 million as finance director for the Obama campaign, and the 42-year-old recently was appointed the White House social secretary.

Chris Lake

WASHINGTON -- It's the grind that every politician dreads: working the phones, hour after hour, asking people for campaign money.

Of all the gushy things that fans of Julianna Smoot have to say about the Obamas' new social secretary, the most telling may be that she could make even "the ask" seem fun.

"She'd place the call, get the person on the phone for you and just make you feel good about it," says former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, whose losing re-election campaign in 2004 pulled in millions with Smoot as fundraiser. "Pretty soon you'd be laughing."

In choosing Smoot to be the new overlord of the White House social scene, the Obamas have selected someone with an enviable list of not-on-the-resume qualities that have everything to do with her track record as one of the best fundraisers on the planet.

By all accounts, she's girl-next-door nice, disarming, fun, creative. But also hyperorganized, direct, driven, competitive. And, yes, she can even cuss when necessary, the sting softened by her Southern accent.

It's an apt skill set for social secretary, a job that requires a multitasker who can juggle planning for hundreds of occasions ranging from glitzy state dinners to teas-for-two, mediate all the elbows thrown in pursuit of coveted White House invites, and strike the right notes for events with cultural, political, legislative and international overtones.

Equally important, she has the trust of the first lady and the president, who calls her "Smoot."

Smoot's in-box already is full. Beyond the usual events on the calendar, there's a May 19 state dinner for Mexico, sure to be closely watched after all the theatrics over the gate-crashers who penetrated the Obamas' first state dinner, in November for the Indian prime minister.

Susan Sher, chief of staff to Michelle Obama, says Smoot was selected for her organizational abilities and gracious manner, not her history of pulling in big money for Democrats.

But Meredith McGehee, policy director of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said Smoot's background calls for extra attention to who scores invitations to White House events.

"It does mean she will receive scrutiny, well-deserved scrutiny," said McGehee. "She is at the nexus between donors and access."

Christine Forester, a San Diego businesswoman who got to know Smoot when both were part of Obama's money-raising juggernaut in the 2008 campaign, said Smoot is persuasive. "Because she is Julianna, there is nothing that people don't want to do for Julianna," Forester says. "She has never sought the limelight. She's really all for getting the work done."

Smoot, 42, spent the past year working as chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. He says that when the presidential transition team learned Smoot was interested in working at the trade office, he was told: "If you don't take her, you're a fool."

Smoot already had an eye-popping achievement by then. As finance director for the Obama campaign -- her first presidential race -- she brought in nearly $750 million, a record amount that surpassed the combined total for both major party candidates four years earlier.

Early on, the impressive cash haul marked Obama, a first-term senator, as a serious contender, and in later stages it provided the cash to let him do pretty much whatever he wanted.

Plenty of other Democrats, too, owe their campaign millions to Smoot's abilities. She steered fundraising for Democratic Senate candidates in 2006, raising a record sum.

Smoot is taking over the Social Office from Desiree Rogers, a fashion-forward Chicago confidante of the Obamas who resigned after little more than a year in the job.

Rogers' service was marked by a series of successful high-wattage social events and lots of new and creative twists, among them an East Room poetry jam and trick-or-treating by thousands of D.C. kids on the White House lawn.

Her tenure was marred, though, by the big blowup over the party-crashers at the Obamas' first state dinner and a sense that she acted too much like a celebrity and not enough like a staff member.

Smoot comes across as the anti-diva. Fashion doesn't consume her. No one expects her to turn up in Vogue magazine, as Rogers did early on. Or to pull up a seat at a state dinner, as did Rogers. Or to have a front-row seat during New York fashion week, as did Rogers.

Smoot has declined interview requests since the announcement Feb. 27 that she was moving to the Social Office. But Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who developed a close friendship with Smoot when Pritzker was national finance chief of the Obama campaign, said that Smoot was "into it, and her competitive juices are flowing to do a good job."

White House aides say the transition from fashionista to fundraiser portends no big changes in White House guest lists or the general direction of the social operation.

Fourteen months into the Obama presidency, the traditional social events from the Easter Egg Roll to the Governor's Ball have all been road-tested at least once.

"With one of everything under our belt, it's much more a matter of tweaking and expanding and trying to get as many different types of people in here as possible," said Sher. "And no, this has nothing to do with donors."

It was during the campaign that Smoot earned the confidence of the Obamas, to whom Smoot didn't flinch from delivered both good news and bad on the fundraising front.

"She could take a situation where everyone was feeling an enormous amount of stress and anxiety, and with a very gentle touch, make everyone relax," says Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama.

"She's a leader by supporting the people around her," says Ami Copeland, who worked with Smoot during the campaign.

"The one thing she does not tolerate is inaction. You know when you haven't fulfilled a commitment."