The List: The World’s Most Powerful No.2s

Batman had Robin. Bush has Cheney. And now, Joe Biden or Sarah Palin might inherit a powerful White House role. In this List, FP looks at five other influential sidekicks who are shaping the world.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin
Prime Minister of Russia

Boss: Dmitry Medvedev

In power since: May 2008

Why hes powerful: Formally speaking, the Russian prime minister ranks below the president and is charged largely with domestic policy. But despite initial hopes in the West that his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, might push liberal reforms and take a more conciliatory line on foreign policy, its increasingly clear that the hard-charging Vladimir Putin is the man in control. Since leaving the Kremlin in May, Putin has beefed up the previously weak prime ministers office with many of his former presidential aides. He still chairs regular meetings of the Russian cabinet, just as he did as president. And when war broke out in August between Georgia and South Ossetia, it was Putin, not Medvedev, who rushed back from the Beijing Olympics to supervise the Russian military response. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has noted repeatedly that although Medvedev signed a cease-fire agreement with Georgia, his writ doesnt appear to extend to the Russian military, implying that Putin is the one calling the shots.

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President of Iran

Boss: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

In power since: June 2005

Why hes powerful: Iran analysts are quick to point out that the Iranian president lacks many important powers and that the countrys supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, makes all the major decisions. Thats especially true when it comes to foreign policy, and yet Ahmadinejad has wielded his bully pulpit like a Shahab missile, driving a hard line on the countrys nuclear standoff with the West and making provocative comments about Israel that have attracted international condemnation. None of that seems to bother Khamenei, who recently affirmed his support for Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections despite widespread criticism of the latters economic management. Those who have written off Ahmadinejad in the coming election have a lot of explaining to do, Columbia University expert Gary Sick put it in a recent e-mail. He is a ferocious competitor and a supremely ambitious politician who is a threat to the entire post-revolutionary establishment.


Wen Jiabao
Premier of the State Council, the Chinese cabinet

Boss: Hu Jintao

In power since: March 2003

Why hes powerful: Hailed in China as Grandpa Wen for his populist touch during the aftermath of this springs Sichuan earthquake, Wen handles Chinas all-important economic reform portfolio and sits atop its 100-million-strong bureaucracy. A lot of Chinese have been overwhelmed by Wen and his sincerity, honesty and humanity, Brookings analyst Cheng Li told the New York Times in May. Formally third in the Communist Party hierarchy, Wens job makes him the equivalent of a prime minister. Hes widely known as a political survivorhe was a close associate of former premier Zhao Ziyang, who was purged in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre and remained under house arrest until his death in 2005, but managed to climb the party ladder nonetheless. Trained as a geologist, Wen is said to deliberate for three days before he makes a decision and reportedly has few enemies. The former Swiss ambassador to China once said that my brain is like a computer, he told the press in March 2003. Indeed, many statistics are stored in my brain. Some make me happy. Some make me worry.


Dick Cheney
Vice president of the United States

Boss: George W. Bush

In power since: January 2001

Why hes powerful: John Nance Garner, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and later Franklin Delano Roosevelts vice president, once colorfully described the vice presidency as not worth a pitcher of warm piss. After Dick Cheneys tenure, nobody would describe the office that way any longer. The hawkish former Wyoming congressman and defense secretary is by far the most powerful veep in history, quietly amassing informal power and working assiduously to shield himself from congressional oversight (his staff asserts that the office is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch). In an acclaimed four-part series published in 2007, the Washington Posts Barton Gellman and Jo Becker reported that Cheney is not, by nearly every inside account, the shadow president of popular lore, and then went on to describe a vice president deeply involved in everything from Supreme Court appointments to interrogation policy to water rights in Oregon. In recent years, Cheneys influence inside the Bush administration has appeared to wane, with a triumvirate of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson playing a more central role. But dont count Cheney outwith Russia increasingly aggressive and tensions with Iran always simmering, he may be due for a comeback in Bushs waning months.

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Ayman al-Zawahiri
Al-Qaedas second in command

Boss: Osama bin Laden

In power since: 1998, when his Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined al Qaeda

Why hes powerful: Although he lacks Bin Ladens malign charisma, some analysts believe Zawahiri is the true operational mastermind of al Qaeda and the originator of the strategy of launching terrorist attacks against the far enemy, the United States. The Egyptian former eye surgeon has issued dozens of audio and video tapes since September 11, 2001, and he even responded at length to questions from Internet supporters in early April. Some media outlets reported Zawahiri as killed or wounded in northwest Pakistan in July, but al Qaedas media wing swiftly denied the rumors. Fluent in English thanks to his medical training, Zawahiri issued a new recording on August 10 in which he urged Pakistanis to support the jihad against the oppression of the Americans. He spoke in English and not his usual florid Arabic, he said, because he cannot speak Urdu.

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