The 36 Most Powerful People Of 2012

warren buffet

Photo: AP

It’s been a big year for politics. From landmark court decision to seismic shifts in gay marriage and marijuana legislation, to a historic election in which more money was spent and more tweets sent than ever before, the events of 2012 have reshaped the U.S. political landscape, and changed the direction we will take going forward. 

Over the course of it all, a group of people emerged who wielded outsize influence and power over the way that the political winds blew this year. We’ve taken stock of these movers and shakers and narrowed the list down to 36 people who, whether it was from behind the scenes or in the centre of the media spotlight, left their indelible mark on U.S. politics in 2012. 

Bill Clinton

Former U.S. President

Unable to resist the lure of a presidential race, Clinton hit the trail for President Barack Obama, campaigning tirelessly as the Democratic Party's most effective surrogate.

Clinton's incredible speech at the Democratic National Convention made a powerful case for Obama's second term, and articulated the party's message in a way that no other Democrat had previously been able to do. The moment arguably won the election for Obama, giving the President a huge boost that carried him through the fall campaign.

Now here are all the reasons to be excited about Clinton's comeback >

Chris Christie

Governor, New Jersey

Despite passing up the chance to run for president in 2012, Christie emerged as one of the leading figures of the Republican Party, possibly setting himself up for a 2016 White House bid.

So great was Christie's influence in the 2012 election that Republicans have even blamed him for Mitt Romney's loss, as a result of the New Jersey Governor's Hurricane Sandy embrace of Obama in the final days of the campaign.

But in the wake of the storm, Christie has defied odds in a blue state to become New Jersey's most popular governor ever. Although Christie has already announced his intention to run for re-election in New Jersey in 2013, he is likely to continue to wield lots of power over his party at a national level.

Here's a look back at Christie's breakout year >

Michael Bloomberg

Mayor, New York City

To get an idea of Bloomberg's influence, consider this: Is there any other political figure with the power to even consider banning soda?

Bloomberg continued to drive the conversation on two major issues about which he feels passionately -- gun control and climate change. In October, he announced the formation of a super PAC supporting candidates who advocate for increased gun control measures, gay marriage and education reform.

His biggest contribution to the political discussion came in early November, when he almost single-handedly made climate change an issue in the final days of the election. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he gave his endorsement to Obama, saying the President would be best on handling the issue.

Now, as political attention turns to gun control in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Bloomberg is once again at the centre of the debate as one of the most vocal advocates for curbing gun violence.

Warren Buffett

CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

Buffett continued to crusade for higher taxes on the wealthy, calling on Congress to enact a minimum tax rate of 30 per cent for taxable income between $1 million and $10 million and 35 per cent for incomes above that.

Buffett also deepened his support for President Obama, who adopted Buffett's proposals -- now known as the 'Buffett Rule' -- into his own tax plan.

Karl Rove

Political consultant, American Crossroads

As the mastermind behind the GOP's largest Super PAC, Rove orchestrated the biggest outside spending effort in any U.S. election ever. Rove was arguably the most influential power-broker on the right, convincing rich conservatives to donate millions to implement his vision for the Republican Party.

For a while, it looked like Rove had actually succeeded in aligning the warring factions of his party, selling them on a plan that he promised would lead to an eventual 'permanent majority' in all three branches of government.

In the end, of course, Rove's undertaking failed spectacularly. American Crossroads got about a 1% return on its investment in 2012 campaigns, and conservatives are now blaming the former Bush strategist for their losses this cycle.

First Lady Michelle Obama

First Lady, United States

After a reluctant entrance into campaign politics in 2008, Michelle Obama has taken on an increasingly high-profile role in her husband's administration, primarily through her campaigns to raise awareness about childhood obesity and to help military families.

The First Lady was also consistently more popular than her husband this year, with approval ratings hovering around 66 per cent. In 2012, she took on a prominent role as a marquee surrogate and fundraiser for the Obama campaign, giving a powerful convention speech and charming various television hosts and children by being game for pretty much anything.

Rush Limbaugh

Radio host

Love him or hate him, Limbaugh still drives conversation on the right. In 2012, he weathered a storm early in the year when he was criticised for calling women's rights activist Sandra Fluke a 'slut' and 'prostitute,' another spark in the so-called 'War on Women.'

But Republicans still view Limbaugh as a conservative 'guide.' One recent example of that came in a report that Republicans would 'look to Limbaugh' to signal if he would be open to a small increase in marginal tax rates as part of a fiscal cliff deal.

Joe Biden

Vice President, United States

One of the most powerful and influential vice presidents in recent memory, Biden flexed his political muscles in 2012 as an effective surrogate for the President on both the campaign trail and the Hill.

Biden stumped early and often for the re-election campaign, coming up with its signature tagline: 'Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.' Although Biden's gaffes were numerous -- he frequently forgot which state he was campaigning in -- the missteps never seriously hurt Obama or his campaign, and Biden even lent the campaign a measure of warmth and humour that the aloof President often lacks.

John Boehner

Speaker, House of Representatives

In the wake of Romney's loss, Boehner has become the de facto leader of the divided Republican Party -- an unenviable task as GOP leaders try to get the various factions of their caucus to get behind a fiscal cliff deal.

Still, Boehner is one of only two people who truly matter in negotiations over the fiscal cliff. And while he has taken some heat from conservatives for making concessions to the White House, it appears as though Boehner has more control over his rank-and-file members than he has had since he took the gavel.

Hillary Clinton

Secretary, State Department

Clinton traveled to 42 countries in 2012 alone, responding to crises in the Syria, Libya, and North Korea, and navigating the U.S. changing role in the Middle East, to name just a few of her accomplishments.

As she winds down her final year as Secretary of State, Clinton leaves the administration immensely more popular than she was when she started. Her approval ratings are the highest of her career, hovering around 70%. She even went viral this year, inspiring the popular Texts From Hillary meme.

While Clinton remains coy about her future political plans, polls shows that she would have a relatively easy shot at the White House, should she choose to run again in 2016.

Now here are 21 photos that prove Hillary Clinton is a total badass >

Harry Reid

Majority Leader, U.S. Senate

The Nevada Democrat revealed his quiet power this summer, when he off-handedly mentioned to a reporter that he had heard from a 'credible source' that Romney didn't pay any federal taxes for 10 years.

In all likelihood, Reid's claim didn't have a shred of truth, but that didn't stop the rumour from plaguing the Romney campaign for months. When Romney finally released a notarized letter from his accountant swearing that the Republican presidential candidate had, in fact, paid taxes, it was too late.

Post-election, Reid has continued his trolling, hinting at dissension in the Republican ranks and just generally causing trouble on Capitol Hill.

Charles and David Koch

CEO and Executive Vice President, Koch Industries, Inc.

The billionaire brothers ramped up their battle against President Obama this year, throwing millions into their ongoing effort to unseat the president.

Interestingly, neither Charles nor David Koch actually made any direct donations to political campaigns, instead funelling most of their electioneering money into their right-wing think tank Americans For Prosperity. The organisation spent upwards of $30 million on ads supporting Republican candidates and trashing Obama's record. Moreover, the group provided grassroots organising and support for Republican campaigns, filling in for the national party's lackluster field effort.

Barack Obama

President, United States

Obama began the year in a weakened political position, badly damaged by the 2011 budget battles and with his approval ratings at rock bottom.

But over the course of the year, Obama regained command over the power of his office, showcasing assertive leadership in moments of national crisis (Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook massacre).

After winning a historic re-election -- and besting Republicans in the first fiscal cliff showdown -- Obama begins his second term in a more powerful position than he has ever been in before.

Valerie Jarrett

Senior Advisor, White House

A longtime friend of the First Family, Jarrett is Obama's closest advisor and 'sounding board' and enjoys virtually unfettered access to the President.

Although she tends to remain out of the media spotlight, several reports on the Obama White House this year have offered an inside look at Jarrett's outsize power in the West Wing, including her involvement in a broad swath of political and policy issues.

The portrait of Jarrett not always been flattering. Several reports have cast her as a polarising figure who has needlessly drawn the President into controversies and divided his White House staff (one New York Times profile claimed that other staffers call Jarrett 'The Night Stalker' because of her tendency to follow Obama to the White House residence).

By all accounts, however, she remains 'the most influential person in the West Wing,' and holds Obama's ear on everything from Guantanamo Bay detainees and women's health to gay marriage and state dinner seating charts.

Ben Bernanke

Chairman, Federal Reserve

A soft-spoken Princeton economist, Bernanke will likely go down as the country's most politically influential -- and incendiary -- central banker of all time.

Obama's Federal Reserve Chairman found himself in the political crosshairs throughout 2012, first as the bogeyman of the Republican presidential primary (remember Rick Perry's vigilante threats?) and later as a leading voice against the GOP's budget policies. Bernanke leveraged his political power to warn lawmakers about the dangers of austerity measures, and even coined the term 'fiscal cliff.'

Most significantly, Bernanke mapped out an aggressive course for U.S. monetary policy, unveiling a fourth round of quantitative easing that puts the Fed on track to continue unlimited buying of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities until the unemployment rate drops below 6.5 per cent.

Ron Paul

U.S. Representative, Texas

After three decades of warnings about the dangers of the federal debt and government spending, the world finally came around to Paul and his ideas in 2012.

The Republican gadfly mounted his third - and most successful - presidential campaign, building up his eccentric army of loyal supporters, and drawing crowds of thousands at campus rallies across the country.

Although Paul never really had a shot at the White House, he surprised the Republican Party by being the last man standing against Mitt Romney. Paul ran a savvy grassroots campaign that took the Republican Party off-guard and carried the Texas Congressman all the way to the convention, where Paul's supporters put up a fierce fight to make their libertarian voices heard.

Back in Washington, Paul continued to make waves when the House voted to pass his bill to audit the Federal Reserve, giving a bipartisan push to Paul's signature issue.

Now, as he prepares to exit politics, Paul leaves behind an entire movement of young libertarian Republicans led by his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

Now find out how Ron Paul became a Revolution >

Sheldon Adelson

CEO, Las Vegas Sands

The 79-year-old casino mogul burst on to the national political scene this year as the new face of Republican outside spending. Adelson set a new record in political donations in the 2012 election cycle, giving $70 million to Republican candidates and groups -- nearly triple the previous record set by George Soros in 2004.

Of course, most of Adelson's political bets failed miserably. In fact, his generosity arguably had the opposite desire effect on achieving his goal of defeating Obama; Romney emerged from the Republican primary badly damaged, thanks in large part to Adelson's $25 million donation to a pro-Newt Gingrich SuperPAC, which was singularly responsible for keeping the former House Speaker in the Republican presidential race.

Still, more than any other individual, Adelson revealed the new power that money can have over U.S. elections.

Stephen Colbert


In 2012, Colbert came out as one of the fiercest critics of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which led to the creation of Super PACS. In his own absurdist on Citizens United, This year was the year of the Super PACs, which can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence federal elections, were unleashed on a Presidential race.

In trademark absurdist fashion, Colbert created his own Super PAC -- Making A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow -- that he used to illustrate the ethical problems posed by the groups. He continued this performance art throughout the campaign, and even encouraged Colbert Nation to form their own Super PACs as well, effectively spawning an army of campaign finance experts-cum-comedians.

Binyamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister, Israel

As the leader of one of America's closest allies, Netanyahu arguably wields more influence over U.S. politics than any other foreign head of state.

The Israeli Prime Minister was not shy about using that power during the 2012 election cycle. Netanyahu has a tense relationship with Obama, as well as close personal ties to Romney, and it was always clear which way he wanted the race to swing, even if it was never stated outright.

The height of Netanyahu's power came in September, during the weeks leading up to the annual United Nations summit. During that period, word somehow got out that Obama had turned down a meeting with his Israeli counterpart in order to appear on The View, a rumour that the White House vigorously denied. Nevertheless, Netanyahu seized the opportunity to hammer the Obama administration on the issue of Iran. He even weighed on the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya, warning lawmakers that more attacks would occur if the U.S. did not draw a 'red line' over the Iranian nuclear program.

Jim Messina

Campaign Manager, Obama for America

Back in March 2011, White House communications director Dan Pfieffer called Messina, then-White House deputy chief of staff, 'the most powerful person you've never heard of.'

That's no longer true. In 2012, Messina became a household name as the campaign manager for Obama's successful reelection campaign. Despite a grim economy and an unpopular incumbent, Messina ran a deft campaign that leveraged technology to empower voters and grassroots supporters in groundbreaking new ways.

Nate Silver

Blogger/political stats guru, NYT's FiveThirtyEight

Silver was at centre the partisan debate over the accuracy of public polling throughout the 2012 campaign, drawing conservative ire over his model that averaged polls to predict election results.

Undeterred by criticism, Silver was always steadfast in predicting re-election for President Barack Obama. So more than any other political statistician, Silver's credibility and model were on the line heading into Election Night, when he forecasted a near-92 per cent chance Obama would win.

But Silver proved his model's worth, correctly predicting all 50 states in the presidential election. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Silver has correctly predicted 99 of 100 state winners in the presidential races and 66 of 68 Senate races.

John Roberts

Chief Supreme Court Justice

Roberts came down on a surprising side in this year's historic vote on the Affordable Care Act, delivering the deciding vote to uphold Obama's signature healthcare reform law. The decision made Roberts, a George W. Bush nominee, a political lightning rod -- a hero on the left and a pariah among conservatives who had once viewed him so favourably.

A big portion of Roberts' legacy will have come from this decision and its reverberations -- for good or bad -- over the coming years. But with the Supreme Court set to tackle two big gay-marriage cases next year, Roberts has become the High Court's central figure in the midst of one of its most intriguing two-year cycles in a long time.

Kathleen Sebelius

Secretary, Health and Human Services Department

As Obama's head of Health and Human Services, Sebelius is in charge of overseeing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a role which makes her, in many ways, a steward of Obama's legacy.

While most of the provisions were put off until after 2012, the department spent the year prepping for a wave of new measures as the country transitions to a new health care system. Governors around the country spent the year deciding whether to set up their own health care exchanges and the administration has now started issuing guidance, telling insurers what the new laws will say.

Needless to say, Sebelius wields enormous power over the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans.

Timothy Dolan

Cardinal-Archbishop, New York

The Catholic Church was at the centre of political debate in the beginning of the year, as it fought against a mandate in the Affordable Care Act that required all insurers to cover contraceptives.

The administration's decision not to exempt religious institutions from the mandate caused swift and steady backlash from the church, led primarily by Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Conservatives called the decision an assault on religious liberty, while liberals responded by saying Republicans were attempting to turn back the clock by denying women access to contraception. In effect, this sparked the beginning of the so-called 'War on Women' that pervaded the 2012 campaign.

In May, 43 Catholic institutions filed a dozen separate suits against the administration. As a result, Obamacare could come before the Supreme Court once again.

Tim Geithner

Secretary, Treasury Department

Over the course of the last four years, Geithner has taken on the mammoth task of rescuing the U.S. economy from the worst economic recession in a generation -- a job that, like it or not, has been directly tied to the political fortunes of his boss, as well as lawmakers across the political spectrum.

But Geithner managed to stay out of the political fray in 2012, staying under the radar as he represented U.S. interests in the European debt drama, dealt with banking crises overseas, and oversaw the implementation of key provisions of the Dodd-Frank law.

Geithner is now preparing to leave the administration -- but not before he deals with the fiscal cliff.

Marco Rubio

U.S. Senator, Florida

Just two years into his first Senate term, Rubio has already made a name for himself as a rising star in the Republican Party. The 41-year-old Cuban-American Senator became one of the most prominent Republican voices during the 2012 campaign, garnering a lot of buzz as a possible VP pick for Romney.

In the aftermath of the election, Rubio's influence has continued to grow as the GOP attempts to reshape its message to appeal to youth and Latino voters.

Now here are 13 things you never knew about Rubio >

Scott Walker

Governor, Wisconsin

At the beginning of 2012, it looked like Walker would be out of a job by June. He goes into 2013 not only still employed, but more empowered and a rising national star in the Republican Party.

Walker started off 2012 at the centre of the ongoing fight between the GOP and organised labour, having signed legislation in 2011 that ended collective bargaining rights for union members. But Walker made history in June by becoming the first governor to stave off a recall attempt, and ended up winning that election by a larger margin than he had in 2010.

The success made Walker an immediate rock star among conservatives, giving him an influential voice in the 2012 presidential election and sparking speculation about a potential run in 2016. He has also emboldened other Republican governors to take similar steps to limit the influence of unions, such as Gov. Rick Snyder in Michigan.

Elizabeth Warren

Senator-elect, Massachusetts

The odds seemed stacked against Warren at the beginning of 2012. The Harvard law professor, who is not a natural politician, was running against a popular incumbent in ran in one of the tightest Senate races in the country. Banking interests and right-wing activists -- the same crowd that sank her nomination to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- were throwing down a massive amount of money to defeat her campaign. But she managed to come out on top.

In doing so, Warren has energized the left and reclaimed a crucial seat to maintain the Democrats' Senate majority. Her comments about income inequality helped drive the conversation in 2012, lending populist fire to the Democratic message. Now, having secured a spot on the Senate Banking Committee, Warren is well-positioned to wield her power in Washington next year.

Paul Ryan

Chairman, House Budget Committee

As Mitt Romney's running mate, Ryan faced quite a setback when their ticket lost this November. That said, Ryan has been a major influence in the GOP this year, often overshadowing that of Romney on the campaign trail.

Most significantly, Ryan, the author of the Republican House budget, has helped turned Medicare reform -- once unthinkable -- into a top issue with relative bipartisan support.

Bill Burton

Co-founder, Priorities USA

As senior strategist of Priorities USA, former White House staffer Bill Burton ran the most effective Super PAC in the 2012 presidential election.

Going into the election, it looked like the left was going to be severely outgunned in terms of outside spending. Republicans had invested immense amounts of energy building Super PACs and had a fundraising head start, and Democrats' ideological opposition to these types of organisations made it difficult for liberal Super PACs to raise money.

But with Obama's eventual blessing and an effective message, Priorities was able to put up a good fight against its counterparts on the right, hammering Romney with an onslaught of negative advertising, including devastating commercials like 'Understands' and 'Stage.'

Allen St. Pierre

Executive Director, NORML

This year was an excellent year for marijuana advocates. In Colorado and Washington, marijuana usage became completely legal -- a first in U.S. history -- and several other states passed ballot measures that decriminalized or legalized the drug.

A driving force behind this sea change has been St. Pierre's National organisation to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML, which lobbies lawmakers, writes ballot measures, financially supports state reform movements, and generally serves as a clearinghouse for all legalization efforts in the United States.

Tom Jensen

Jim DeMint

U.S. Senator, South Carolina

DeMint, the outgoing senator from South Carolina, announced in December that he would use years of built-up conservative clout to try to influence its happenings from the outside. He will leave the Senate to become the head of Heritage Foundation.

In the Senate, DeMint has been a thorn in the side of the GOP establishment. DeMint has helped provide his chamber with an influx of conservative lawmakers in the last two elections, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Pat Toomey (R-PA) in 2010; in 2012, his Super PAC, Senate Conservatives Fund, helped elect GOP Senate newcomers Ted Cruz of Texas, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Jeff Flake of Arizona. DeMint even had a big hand in choosing his successor -- Rep. Tim Scott, who will spend at least the next two years in the chamber.

Now, DeMint has the chance to significantly influence the party establishment from the outside -- perhaps even more so than he did as a Senator. As RedState's Erick Erickson put it, DeMint's 'power in the conservative movement just grew exponentially. A man who was going to retire in four years anyway, will now be leading the conservative movement from its base of operations for years to come.'

David Brock

Founder, American Bridge 21st Century

Brock, the conservative-turned-liberal firebrand behind Media Matters, turned his attention to a new venture in 2012, the American Bridge 21st Century PAC, one of the premier opposition research groups for the left.

After taking contributions from George Soros, the PAC was able to track a variety of candidates -- most notably Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin -- and use that research to make powerful ads and attacks. Steve Doocy alleged that American Bridge had several hundreds of pages of 'dirt' on Rep. Paul Ryan.

Grover Norquist

President, Americans For Tax Reform

Norquist, an anti-tax activist, became a household name in 2012, as politicians looked to see whether he would pose an obstacle to a deal on the fiscal cliff.

Although Norquist has no real role in any of the fiscal cliff negotiations. But his presence is felt as a result of the ATR anti-tax pledge, which commits each member to 'oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses.' All but 16 Republicans in the House of Representatives and six GOP Senators have signed the pledge,

One of the pillars of the fiscal cliff debate comes on the dispute over raising marginal tax rates on incomes above $250,000. The fact that Norquist's name is being brought up in discussions shows the clout he has built in Washington.

Now here are 10 things you never knew about Grover Norquist >

Andrew Cuomo

Governor, New York

Cuomo kept up momentum from a strong 2011, in which he oversaw the state's successful push for the legalization of gay marriage. Though Cuomo has infuriated some in his own base after a New York State Senate debacle, his approval ratings have soared throughout the year. Most recently, he saw a bump from his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Like Christie, Cuomo has become popular across party lines -- 82 per cent of Democrats and 68 per cent of Republicans approve of the job he's doing as governor -- and is building a strong profile for a potential 2016 candidacy.

It's been a big year for politics...

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