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The story of the most important political campaign in modern times, by the man who went through it side by side with President Obama.
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David Plouffe served as the campaign manager for Barack Obama's primary and general election victories in 2008. He was the architect of the strategy for both elections. Prior to running the Obama campaign, Plouffe served as a leading Democratic Party media consultant from 2001 to 2007, playing a key role in the election of U.S. senators, governors, mayors, and House members across the country. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Yes or No
The week before the 2006 congressional elections, my business partner, David Axelrod, and I were sitting in an editing suite in Chicago, putting the final touches on a series of television ads for various Democratic clients. We were seven or eight hours into a sixteen-hour session at the studio.
"I can't wait for this goddamned election to be over," I grumbled. "I want it to be over more than I want to win."
It was a biannual complaint. By October of each election year, everyone in the business has pulled too many all-nighters, been on too many conference calls, and read too many polls. If the whole profession could put the campaign in suspended animation and sleep for a week, it would.
Ax fiddled with some music selections for the spot we were working on. "Well, then you won't like this," he said. "Barack wants to meet in Chicago the day after the election to talk about the presidential race. And he wants you there. So don't get too excited for Election Day."
"Really?" I said. "Shit."
Obama's book tour that fall for The Audacity of Hope had unexpectedly turned into a presidential draft. Independent groups calling for him to run had sprung up across the country, generating tens of thousands of rabid potential supporters. There was clearly enthusiasm on the margins. It seemed to me to stem from a hunger for something new and a desire to turn the page not just on the Bush era, but on our own party's recent history.
The crowds and chatter around the book tour in turn bred a great deal of speculation in the political community and the media about a possible Obama candidacy. Obama would be appearing on Meet the Press one Sunday in October, and it was expected that host Tim Russert would press him on whether he was going to run. The question was complicated by the fact that Obama had been on the show in January 2006 and made a Shermanesque statement about not running in 2008.
The Saturday before his October Meet the Press appearance, Axelrod and I got on the phone with Obama and his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Obama and Gibbs were driving down the New Jersey Turnpike toward Pennsylvania, in between rallies he was attending for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates. In 2006 Obama was the most in-demand speaker for Democratic candidates in every part of the country, thanks to the fame resulting from his stirring 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in Boston and the success of his two books.
Ax, Gibbs, and I were trying to find the right turn of phrase to reconcile what Obama had said in January with where he stood in October: while a presidential candidacy was, as he said to us privately, "unlikely," the response to the book tour, the state of the country, and his profound sense that we needed a big change in leadership had caused him to give the race some consideration.
We started by throwing out some of the standard nonanswers: "Tim, my focus now is helping Democrats win back the Congress in 2006," or "We haven't even had the 2006 election, so let's settle down a bit; there will be plenty of time to discuss 2008 down the line."
Obama listened and then offered a novel approach. "Why don't I just tell the truth?" he suggested. "Say I had no intention of even thinking about running when I was on the show in January but things have changed, and I will give it some thought after the 2006 elections."
That kind of straightforward answer may sound unremarkable, but politicians always twist themselves into knots denying the obvious on these shows. His instinct to drop the charade and just say what he was thinking was enormously refreshing.
When the strategy session ended I called Ax and said, "That was impressive. It sounds silly but I think if he answers the question that way people will be even more intrigued. Because it will sound so nonpolitical."
"That's what makes him unique," Ax replied. "He doesn't have that political gene so many of them do. He's still a human being."
Ax had known Obama since 1992, when Barack was running a voter registration drive in Chicago and Ax was emerging as the city's preeminent Democratic political consultant. They stayed in touch over the years, and even though Ax never worked for him in a political capacity, they built a strong friendship. He often said Obama was one of the smartest people he had ever known—maybe the smartest.
Ax and I were partners in a political consulting firm. We met in 1994 when I was managing a U.S. Senate race in Delaware and he was hired to serve as our media consultant. His firm produced our television and radio ads and served as campaign advisers on strategy and message.
I thought David was unique among political consultants. He was not slick—in fact, whatever the opposite of slick is, Ax was its poster child. He and his partners did not take on too many races, choosing instead to pour themselves into a handful of worthy efforts. Ax took great pride in his work, opting for quality over quantity, and he had a healthy disregard for Washington, which I found appealing. He also had a great sense of humor, was a legendarily poor dresser, and was profoundly disorganized. And he was one of the smartest people I had ever met.
We lost the Delaware race—as did just about every Democrat facing the Republican tsunami of 1994—but I thought Ax did an excellent job for us, and we stayed in touch. In 2001 he asked me if I'd be interested in joining his firm as a partner. The idea appealed to me; I was interested in learning a new discipline—advertisement production—and respected the firm's focused approach. I agreed to join but would work out of Washington instead of the Chicago headquarters.
The firm—which became AKP Media in 2007—had a meeting in late 2002 to discuss business options for 2003 and 2004. The main topic of conversation was the 2004 Illinois senate race, which would be an open seat.
The two main Democratic contenders were Blair Hull, a very wealthy businessman who had vowed to spend millions on his campaign, and Dan Hynes, the state controller, who would have the endorsement of the state party and many labor unions and was considered a strong favorite. Both candidates had approached us about working for them, and David had sat down with each man to size him up.
But at our meeting he announced that he did not want to work for either. Instead, he thought we should work for a little-known state senator named Barack Hussein Obama, who was given zero chance to win by the political establishment. Just fourteen months after September 11, most believed his name alone would sink his candidacy.
"One of the others will probably win," Ax told us. "But Barack Obama is the kind of guy who should be in the U.S. Senate. He's bright, principled, skilled legislatively, and committed to a politics that lifts people up. I think that's who we should work for."
"Let me get this straight," summed up one of our colleagues. "We should work for the candidate with no chance, no money, and the funny name?"
"As I keep telling you guys," Ax wryly replied, "I am a terrible businessman."
So that was that. Ax had been the lead political reporter for the Chicago Tribune before transitioning into politics and had since elected mayors, senators, and congressmen throughout the state. He was considered the godfather of Illinois Democratic politics, from the operative side of the fence, and had great latitude on any decision the firm made involving Illinois.
I was not heavily involved in the day-to-day of Obama's 2004 Senate race, having other projects that I was primarily responsible for, but I attended some meetings and wrote his initial campaign plans for the primary election and then, when he won the primary in a stunning landslide, for the general.
My first meeting with him came at Ax's request in the spring of 2003. I flew into Chicago from D.C., and the three of us had breakfast at my hotel on Michigan Avenue. My mission at the breakfast was simple: convince Barack that he could not run for U.S. Senate and simultaneously serve as both his own driver and scheduler. The fledgling campaign was struggling with this as well as a host of other remedial issues: he was not spending enough time making fundraising calls. He was not closing the deal effectively enough with potential political supporters. And he was generally having a hard time allowing his campaign staff to take more responsibility for both the campaign and his life.
"You just have to let go and trust," I told him. "Your staff will inevitably screw up. But the most precious resource in any campaign is time. The candidate's time. Your time. You have to be the candidate. Not the campaign manager, scheduler, or driver."
"I understand that intellectually," he said, "but this is my life and career. And I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I'll hire to do it. It's hard to give up control when that's all I've known in my political life. But I hear you and will try to do better."
It was my first exposure to Obama's significant self-confidence. We chatted about the race for the rest of breakfast. I was struck by his intelligence and ease, and noticed that he lit up more when talking about policy than politics. I also noted his thoughts on campaign strategy—he was determined to win not with thirty-second ads and clever sound bites, but by building a grassroots campaign throughout Illinois. With rare exceptions, that was not the way politics was done anymore. Maybe Ax is on to something here, I thought. This is the kind of person we need in politics—and that...
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