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If he wasn't the most obscure person in the room, Barack Obama was close: a young, first-term state senator with few connections outside of Chicago.

"When people went around the room and said who they were, you could probably figure out why they were there," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, a well-known progressive preacher and activist.

Among those seated at the table were former Clinton White House aide George Stephanopoulos, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed.

And when it got to Obama, people thought, "Yeah, OK, why are you here?" Wallis recalled with a laugh.

It was a Harvard seminar in 1997 on social capital—the human equivalent of greenbacks. Compared to the 32 others in the room, Obama was pretty broke in that regard; the seminar helped turn his little pile into a fortune.

Though the Saguaro Seminar, which met every few months from 1997 to 2000, remains an unfamiliar chapter in Obama's well-thumbed biography, over the last decade, he has continually built on relationships, ideas and political skills gleaned from or reinforced by those meetings.

Obama has hired fellow Saguaro alumni for top White House posts; solicited two more, including Wallis, to be close spiritual advisers; and implemented a host of ideas kicked around those tables 10 years ago. In ways large and small—from extending an olive branch to Muslims overseas to revamping the White House faith-based office to seeking common ground on abortion, Obama has echoed themes straight from the Saguaro playbook.

"There's a lot of resonance between what we talked about in this group and what he's saying now," said Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who convened the Saguaro Seminar. "But I would ...

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June 2009

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