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How the 2008 presidential race was won

Barack Obama was elected president just a year ago, but it feels more like a lifetime. The hopes and promise of that extraordinary day when Americans voted the first African-American into the White House have given way to the more mundane realities of politics and governing. • A year ago, I wrote a column stating the obvious (that Obama was a transformative candidate in so very many ways) but mulling the less obvious (would he also become a transformative president?). (Read it at I raised the question that "he may be the vessel into which people pour their dreams and will face expectations that cannot be met by any mortal." And certainly some of that's true, with your view shaped by whether you believe he dithers or is simply methodical. But it's also true that if health care reform and some other Obama initiatives pass, he will have accomplished some major goals simply by keeping his eye on the prize and not worrying so much about the day-to-day barometer of politics. • David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, has just written a book about the presidential race called The Audacity To Win. (The book's Web site is I've chosen some excerpts below that illustrate how Obama, the candidate, in many ways presaged Obama, the president. And there are also a few passages that show clearly how the Obama team was ready to play hardball. The book is worth a read, not just for its interesting insider look at the campaign but for a sense of how the man who won the presidency thought and behaved and evolved on the way there.

Jim Verhulst, Perspective editor

The announcement
(pages 40-41)

Editor's note: The campaign team — among them, Plouffe, David Axelrod (Ax) and Robert Gibbs — is arriving in Springfield, Ill., in February 2007 to prepare for the following day's official announcement that Barack Obama would run for president of the United States. Then came the first eruption of bad news about a man named the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

We had just crossed the city line into Springfield when everyone's BlackBerry began going nuts. Whatever this is, I thought, it can't be good.

It wasn't. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas' longtime pastor, had said some inflammatory things in a Rolling Stone interview that was released that morning. The article quoted Wright's profoundly critical statements about the United States: "We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional killers. ... We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!"

This would be problematic in a normal campaign situation, however that's defined. On this day in particular it was horrific. Wright was slotted to perform the invocation at the announcement. We could not afford to have Obama's message about coming together swallowed up by the controversy over his fiery and divisive pastor's comments.

We were looking at our first crisis.

Ax looked stricken. "This a f---ing disaster," he said. "If Wright goes up on that stage, that's the story. Our announcement will be an asterisk. The Clinton campaign will ensure it."

Gibbs, Ax, and I got on the phone with Obama, and Ax laid it out for him. This would obviously be a painful call to make, but he immediately agreed it was no longer tenable for Wright to give the invocation. "I'll call him and tell him it will overshadow everything," said Obama. "I still want him to come, maybe he can do a private prayer with my family before I go out to speak."

We breathed a sigh of relief. The crisis had been averted. For the moment.

The incident should have prompted an immediate scouring of the Reverend Wright and all he had said over the years. There will be plenty of time for the reverend later, but it's worth noting that our systemic failure to deal with this issue properly started the day before Obama's announcement. I still kick myself for how terribly we mishandled our internal Wright work.

Obama was scheduled for a few runthroughs of the speech Friday night in the basement of the Old State Capitol. He was also interviewing with 60 Minutes from some of the ornate and historical rooms upstairs. The interview ran long and he was tired. The speech rehearsal did not go well. We all felt like he was just going through the motions. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll nail it tomorrow. I just need to get some sleep."

When he left, Ax immediately shot me a concerned look. I shrugged my shoulders.

"Well," I said, "I guess we'll see what the hell we get tomorrow."

Obama was not much of a practice player. But when the red light went on, and he had strong material (which usually meant he had written or had a hand in it), he would hit the clutch shot.

Having fun yet? (pages 56-57)

Editor's note: Even as early as 2007, it's clear that Obama is not fond of the realities of the campaign trail.

During a flight leg in April, Gibbs tried to have a heart-to-heart with Obama. "Are you having any fun at all?" he asked him.

"None," Obama flatly replied.

"Do you see any way we can make it more fun?" Gibbs replied.


Reggie Love, who was listening in on the conversation, piped up, "Well, if it's any consolation I'm having the time of my life!" Reggie, a former basketball player at Duke, was renowned for working hard and playing hard, as befit a single 24-year-old who seemed to require zero sleep. As Obama's "body guy," or close, full-time personal aide, Reggie would experience the campaign from a unique perch and always with a great outlook and sense of wonderment for the ride he was on.

Obama still didn't flash a smile. He hadn't embraced campaign life, and it was beginning to cause concern. The early-state staff in particular thought he was not locked in on the trail, either in his remarks or in his solicitations of political support.

Oppo research: Hillary Clinton, D-Punjab (pages 72-73)

Editor's note: Opposition research teams often leak their findings to reporters in hopes of seeding negative coverage about their competitors. But it can be awkward when it's clumsily done.

Our research team had put together a document that highlighted the voluminous examples of Hillary Clinton's expressing tacit support for outsourcing. We knew this could cause huge problems in Iowa with blue-collar voters, so we decided to send this background document around to select reporters in hopes of getting some stories written.

This is standard operating procedure — campaigns move research and story ideas around to introduce them into the campaign dialogue without having to launch the attack themselves. Sharing such information is meant to spur a reporter into doing her own research and reporting; get it right and you can draft behind a press story and not catch the arrows for doing the dirty work. We did much less of this than many campaigns did, but there were times when we indulged — it was our researchers who found John Edwards' infamous $400 haircut expenditures.

The document on outsourcing was titled "Hillary Clinton, D-Punjab," after an incident when Hillary Clinton was in India and she jokingly told a local official that should be her title because of her ongoing political interest in many things Indian. It was stupid and snarky; these research documents historically do not see the light of day, so communications staff doesn't treat them as though their language will be repeated. They are considered off-the-record and rarely get sourced. As a result, we were sloppy. But we got burned, and the New York Times broke the story that we were moving the D-Punjab document around the press world.

As soon as we got the first call from the Times we knew we were in deep s---. Our press secretary, Bill Burton, called me with the news as I was landing in Chicago, and my stomach sank. My first reaction was, "How on earth could they write a story off a paper that was clearly research, a background document?"

But that was blame shifting and rationalization. We had screwed up, and in a way that could be uniquely damaging. For other campaigns this would be a blip on the radar. But we had promised a different standard, and this was about as far as possible from the type of campaign we had pledged to run.

Obama was predictably furious when I talked to him after getting off the phone with Burton. Worse than that, he was disappointed. "This is the first time I am embarrassed by my campaign," he said. "How could this happen? Is staff going renegade?"

"No, this was distributed to the senior message staff before it went to reporters," I told him. "None of us objected because it was a research document and we didn't expect that material to surface or be printed by the press."

"I never want this to happen again," he said, making sure I had it clear. "I want controls in place and I want you to take personal responsibility for it. I don't care what the other campaigns are doing. We can't use that as a standard. Get control of it or I won't allow us to send anything but our schedule out to the press."

He was as short and upset as I had ever seen him.

Not counting Florida (pages 101-102)

Editor's note: Remember when Florida and Michigan broke the Democratic National Committee rules to hold their contests early? Even though the rules were clear, the Obama campaign was surprised that Clinton officials were willing to let Florida be penalized, a state in which she had a huge lead. Seeing that the national committee was willing to strip both states of their delegates, Plouffe decided to quickly and quietly take advantage of the situation.

I asked (Obama deputy campaign manager) Steve Hildebrand to go on a secret diplomatic mission to speak with the four early-state party chairs (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada), encouraging them to ask all the candidates to sign a pledge stating they would not campaign in any states (Florida and Michigan) that had violated the rules and were threatening the approved early states' primacy. Yes, this was in our self-interest. But it was also in theirs. If these two big states were penalized as severely as possible, and we all committed not to campaign in them, then the role of the early states was protected with no ambiguity.

From our perspective, this would be the final nail in the coffin. The pledge would make the first four states as sacrosanct, and by signing it the Clinton people would box themselves in; they could not claim at a later date that Michigan and Florida were somehow valid contests.

Not sure about that slogan (pages 103-104)

Editor's note: It seems almost ridiculous in retrospect, but Obama was not a fan early on of a certain slogan that galvanized his campaign. Here is what Obama said:

"(S)peaking of Iowa, I'm not sold on this slogan you guys have cooked up, 'Change We Can Believe In.' Do you really think it says enough? Nothing about issues at all."

Axelrod and his message team had come up with dozens of slogan options and sent Obama a memo recommending we go with "Change We Can Believe In." We had not had a slogan up to this point but felt that we should have something for the stretch drive. A slogan rarely outlasts the campaign it was created for, but a good one can effectively reinforce your core message.

I was not sold on "Change We Can Believe In" at first — it seemed a bit awkward and perhaps ephemeral. But it also had potential because it was a bit unusual and could reinforce our message. Few politicians were actually saying they would fight for you, the voter, and change Washington, or at least do so convincingly, and we hoped it would make people stop and think. Cynicism was one of our chief obstacles in convincing voters that Obama could bring about change. Our research showed that most voters believed Obama was authentic about his desire for change; they even thought someone not bound by the ways of Washington was more likely to bring it about than experienced Beltway hands.

But sadly, many voters weren't sure anyone could really change the foul atmosphere in Washington. We hoped this slogan would forcefully suggest that Obama could be trusted to try — and that he might just succeed. The slogan also had the value of serving as an implicit contrast with Clinton. Fair or not, a healthy amount of voters still suggested they had a hard time fully trusting her. So there was a character component to the phrase, at least unconsciously, and I had become quite enamored of it.

"Well, let's give it a try," he said. "I'm still not sure, but we can't spend another week or two on it."

The slogan ended up being one of the signature pieces of the campaign.

The speech on race (page 212)

Editor's note: Obama had decided he should give a speech on race — but not interrupt his campaigning to make time to write it.

Ax began to fret about the real-world problems of constructing the most important speech of our candidacy largely on the fly, when I interrupted. "Look, let's call him and walk through it," I said. "We'll do the speech but he has to own the reality of the time constraints."

We conferenced Barack in. "So?" he asked. "What's the deal?" We told him we agreed with the speech but that it was going to be hard to put it together.

"Tonight is Friday — well, Saturday morning," I said. "We have to give this speech no later than Tuesday. You have a full schedule in Pennsylvania the next three days. It has already been publicized. If we start canceling events it will fuel the impression that we're panicked and our candidacy is on the rocks."

"No, we can't cancel anything," Obama interjected, "but I already know what I want to say in this speech. I've been thinking about it for almost 30 years."

From candidate to president (pages 381-382)

Editor's note: Here is a sense of what we can learn to expect from Obama, the president, in assessing what we know about Obama, the candidate.

Wiping the slate clean, looking at things differently — as we did in both the primary and the general — and deciding on a course based on sound analysis and research is an Obama hallmark, one that I believe will serve the country well.

Of course, when you do this, the cynics and purveyors of conventional wisdom howl in protest. In Washington, many focus more on what can't be done than on what can be. One of the president's great strengths, and therefore his organization's strength, is his discipline: once a course has been set, he is determined not to let a chorus of critics alter that game plan. I saw this commitment over and over again in the campaign when it came to message and strategy, and I can see it coming into play now as the White House tackles the hard work of stabilizing the economy, passing health insurance reform, and creating an energy revolution in America.

His efforts will be graded daily by the pundits, and polls will be thrown around as evidence of progress or setbacks, but he will keep the ship steady, focused on achieving an end result that will improve the lives of Americans. Without this discipline and long-range focus, change would be impossible to bring about in Washington, a city where every bump, real or imagined, is treated as a permanent setback. The president does not view his work and progress on these imperatives through the lens of daily political scorekeeping. He stays focused on whether his day-to-day work, most of which will never appear in the news, is leading toward the desired result.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe. Copyright © 2009 by David Plouffe.

The Audacity to Win

By David Plouffe, Viking Penguin, $27.95, 390 pages

How the 2008 presidential race was won 11/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 10:51am]
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