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November 13, 2009

Victors write history: Plouffe records Obama campaign strategy

Were one of your professors to say about you “There is nobody I trust more,” you’d be flattered. Your best friend? Honored. The leader of the free world? It’s likely your editors would slap it on the front cover of your new book. That’s exactly what President Obama has said about David Plouffe, the wunderkind campaign director of the Obama presidential bid. He took some time to talk with the Maroon in anticipation of his appearance at the International House, where he is promoting the release of his new book, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory. The conversation centered on idealism in politics, “new media,” and, of course, hope and change.

Chicago Maroon: You write that Obama was a candidate driven by ideals. For example, he felt that it was necessary for individuals to reengage in civic life, and that led to the importance of volunteers. How did Obama’s idealism affect the strategies used by the campaign?

David Plouffe: First of all, we built a very powerful grassroots campaign. But that started out not as a campaign strategy, but as a dictate from President Obama. So his belief that people could be engaged in the process—particularly young people, people who had checked out of politics— that was an idealistic vision that ended up coming to fruition. Also, I think he really believed he could engage people in a serious conversation about the issues. You might remember during the campaign that political commentators would criticize him for sounding too much like a professor, but it was his belief that you didn’t just have to engage in cheap sound bites. At, you know, at the end of the day, the American people were ready to be challenged again, and that’s what he’s doing now as president, on health care and energy, issues that had lingered on.

CM: You write that then-candidate Obama didn’t have a “pathological” need to become president, and that Obama was perfectly fine not winning. But as a campaign manager, were you?

DP: Well, no. I’m a competitive person. But because he didn’t have a pathological need to win, I write about this, and that was very healthy. We didn’t have that stifling pressure that comes with a candidate whose whole life is wrapped up in this thing. Now once we won the nomination, I think we had a deep obligation to win, because the country couldn’t afford 4 more years of Bush policies, which was largely what McCain was offering. So then we did have stifling pressure, but it didn’t come from the personal ambition of Barack Obama. It came from the need to win. Listen, I obviously wanted to win this desperately, but I think we were very healthy about it, and that made us a good campaign.

CM: You mention in the book that risk-taking often produced positive results for the campaign. But the example of risk-taking include seemingly upfront things, like Obama being straightforward about his interest in running after the 2006 midterm elections, and in dealing with the controversies that surrounded Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Do you think it’s a risk to be a straightforward politician?

DP: I’d say [there are] two categories here. One is there’s defying convention, and that often means being straightforward. When I talk about risky, it’s a lot more about going overseas, the speech in Berlin, having our convention outside, the 30-minute ad. I do think that talking in a straightforward manner, having the belief that you can talk to the American people in an elevated discourse, not taking the lowest road available to you—those things defy political convention. The race speech, I assure you, was something that wouldn’t be in the political playbook for something like Wright. So, I think in ways big and small we defied convention. Some of them I would put in the category of quite risky, others either hadn’t been done or wouldn’t have been done.

CM: Why do you think it is the case that politically it is popular to take the lowest possible road?

DP: Everyone in politics shouldn’t be under this umbrella, but I do think there’s a sense in the political community that if someone hits you, you’ve got to hit back lower, and that you’ve got to straddle the tough issues. And I think that his [Obama’s] straightforwardness and his candor was rewarded by the American people. My hope is that’s it’s an example to candidates that you can win the right way. That was the legacy of our campaign, and I think it’s a positive one.

CM: The Obama campaign mobilized voters to great effect through the use of new media— Facebook, email, text message, etc. Much has been made of its positive effect on the campaign and on voter turnout in Obama’s favor, but lately your opponents have used those tactics. The Tea Party protests [against the stimulus package] and the Hot Air Balloon Tours [against healthcare] have been presented as grassroots activism, using the tactics of the Obama campaign. How do you feel about your strategy being used by your opponents?

DP: Well of course everyone is going to analyze what is working out there and try and adapt. I’m not going to criticize anyone for organizing because we believe in that, but I will say a couple of things. One: the tea baggers—their message is something that at the end of the day is flawed. I don’t think that that’s where a vast majority of the American people are. It appeals to the Palin/Limbaugh side of the party, but I don’t think it’ll appeal to the moderate centrists. Secondly, I think they’ve been pretty good at creating a lot of noise; that’s different [from] gritty, day-to-day organizing. I actually think the supporters of health care reform have been much more organized and been quietly talking to people across the country. And support for health care reform, despite the attacks, has remained pretty stable over the past few months. The one thing I know is that technology continues to change rapidly, and you can’t fault anyone for trying to organize. But real organizing is hard. It’s day-in and day-out; you’re not just trying to make a splash. You’re trying to make an impact person-to-person.

CM: Is new media here to stay? Will any future presidential campaign have to utilize it?

DP: Oh I think so. One thing I put in the book is that I don’t think it should be called “new media” anymore. It should be called “digital strategy”, because it’s just not “new” and it’s just not “media”. But yeah, I think that pretty soon, more and more people will be consuming information on mobile devices…and getting their information on line. It impacts all impacts of the campaign: your ability to organize, to raise money, to communicate internally. So really, in many ways, it will become the foundation of the campaign.

CM: Even before Obama was elected, people were still trying to figure out what type of person he was: earnest bringer of Hope, or classic South Side Chicago heavy-hitter, or the consummate politician. Which is he?

DP: First of all, the country needs to tackle its strongest challenges and stop ignoring them. That was the foundation of his campaign and that is the foundation of his presidency. And when he talks about hope and change, these aren’t gauzy sentiments. It’s about our ability to do tough things together against tough odds. I think he’s someone who is a pragmatist, in that he’s willing to listen to all sides. He’s very focused on getting the job done and on measuring the progress in a very clinical way. But he is someone who ran for president because he believes the American people were ready to be challenged and finally make progress on some of the issues that will determine [switches thoughts]…Listen, all the readers of your newspaper, you know, in the not too distant future, they are the ones inheriting the country. If we don’t know the right things now on health care and energy, they’re going to be inheriting a weakened country, and we can’t let that happen.

CM: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you enjoy your life now that the campaign is over [Mr. Plouffe, unlike many top Obama strategists, has not taken a job with the President’s administration]. What’s life like now that the campaign is over? And why did you choose to write the book now?

DP: Nothing compares to the campaign on intensity. The book tour—I’m working very hard, I’m away from home. But when I’m in Washington, my life is quite manageable. You know, the thing I find most important is to be present when you’re home. When you’re working on a campaign or in the White House, you really are never present. There’s always a crisis popping up. So now, when I’m home, I’m home. That’s really a nice change.

As far as the book, this is something that’s humbling to say: Our victory wasn’t something that just belonged to us in the campaign or a normal election victory. It was an important moment in history, and I thought it needed to be captured. And the only way to capture it proper was to do it right after the election, where it was still in my memory. And I thought it was important to capture the campaign through our eyes. Now I don’t think it’s necessarily a playbook. Campaigns are different, every year is different. And politics are not static. And I thought it was important to capture both [Obama’s] remarkable leadership qualities as well as the remarkable work and effort all of our volunteers put into the campaign.

CM: Given that every campaign is different, and every year is different, do you think you could have achieved this success with a different candidate or a different time?

DP: No, not with a different candidate. The grassroots campaign that we built, our ability to win states like Indiana and North Carolina, Virginia—all of that was because of Barack Obama. None of this was transferrable. It was all due to his leadership and his inspiration. Could we have won this in a different year? I don’t’ know. The timing really worked this year. The country was hungry for change, someone without a long Washington resume, technology improving to the degree we were able to use it during the campaign. Everything aligned well. But one thing I will stress: This campaign couldn’t be moved over to a different candidate. It wouldn’t work. You can’t manufacture these things.