3. Michael McFaul
McFaul falls well below the radar in terms of staffers, but he holds a portfolio of tremendous importance: the reset button on U.S.-Russian relations. As National Security Council director for Russia, McFaul frequently traveled to Moscow this year to troubleshoot a crucial great-power relationship on matters both huge (the first Obama-Medvedev meeting) and picayune (getting Russia to pressure Kyrgyzstan to let the U.S. maintain access to an air base there). More influential than any diplomat handling the Russia brief (the U.S. ambassador to Russia isn’t even an Obama appointee), the former Hoover Institution scholar played a role in securing Medvedev’s hard-line shift on Iran’s nuclear program at the UN in September. Going forward, McFaul will be working on one of Obama’s major priorities: negotiating a treaty with Russia on nuclear weapons reduction.