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 May, and Obama was trying to stave off a comeback by Sen. Hillary Clinton. Chatting 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 likely candidate. Others expect to stay close to Obama through the personal and business ties that have evolved over decades.
The Obama inner circle is 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 No. 1."
A resident of the same Hyde Park neighborhood, Nesbitt 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 Obama's side of the family. In high school, Nesbitt was recruited by Princeton — where her brother Craig Robinson was a standout basketball player. Nesbitt wound up going to college elsewhere, but the two became close. When the Obamas began dating, Nesbitt met the new boyfriend, and a 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.
"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 top adviser. In her day job, she is chief executive officer 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 Obama for a job in Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's administration. A measure of her influence is the inbox of Obama's BlackBerry. One time he asked her about 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 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 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.
In the span of nearly two grueling years of campaigning, Obama's friends have tried to provide room for him to relax. Jarrett recalls the period when Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was dominating the news. Obama set out to deliver a speech in Philadelphia laying out his views on race relations, hoping to end the tempest.
A couple of nights before the speech, Jarrett sent him an e-mail, passing along "some delicious gossip about a friend of ours."
"He's dealing with the fact that there's a crisis in the campaign and he's taking on a subject that is difficult under the best of circumstances," Jarrett recalled. "I wrote him a cryptic note, figuring he would not respond if he was working on his speech. Within 30 seconds he called me and we had a great laugh about it."
Commiserating about the difficulty of the speech, he confided to her, "This is really complicated," Jarrett said.
"I said, 'Good luck, buddy.' There was nothing I could do other than be there for him."
Another time, during the volatile primary campaign in South Carolina, Jarrett, Nesbitt and Whitaker were riding with Obama on his campaign bus.
The three friends were talking among themselves in the rear of the bus when Obama wandered back, stretched out on the couch and began to take a nap. They all got up to let him sleep. Obama insisted they stay.
"He would fall asleep and wake up and fall asleep," Jarrett said. "It said something about the comfort we were offering him. He didn't want to take a nap. He wanted to listen to us chatting away while he fell asleep."