The Message

The Reselling of President Obama

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By Richard Wolffe

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They had 99 problems but Mitt Romney wasn’t one.

At the start of an epic election, the team trying to reelect President Obama faced a mountain of challenges: a dismal economy, the faded hopes of the first campaign, and a struggle to raise enough cash to compete. No president had risen so fast, or fallen so far, in the modern era. And no president in living memory had earned a second term in such troubled times. To resell the president, they needed to redefine the world they were living in. They needed to retell their own story and rewrite the characters.

They needed to find The Message.

But first, they needed to fight the enemy within: each other. For six years they kept a lid on their internal disputes-the ego clashes, the disappointed ambitions, and the battle to control the Obama brand. Everything was out of public view and under wraps. They called their style No Drama Obama, and the phrase matched the mood of the candidate. But it was never completely true.

In 2008 they found a way around their rivalries. Four years later, their hostilities threatened to undermine the reelection of a president at a time when most voters were deeply unhappy and ready for change.

Drawing on unrivaled access to the key characters, The Message tells the inside story of the Mad Men-the marketers, message-shapers, and admakers-who held the Obama presidency in their hands.

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For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men's blood; I only speak right on.
I tell you that which you yourselves do know.

—Antony in the Forum, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene ii




ONE

VINDICATION

One Prudential Plaza was more than just the address of the Obama campaign in 2012; it was a state of mind. Tucked in between the bold architecture of Chicago's skyline, the almost sixty-year-old rectangular block was a monolithic relic of a more powerful era. It was the city's tallest building when it opened, in the same year the first Mayor Richard Daley seized power as the city's unrivaled boss. Now its main attractions were its empty space and its expansive views. Looking out the window you could see Grant Park, the site of Barack Obama's victory speech in November 2008. Or you could stare at the screen of a laptop, one of many lined up on beige desks, indistinguishable from the beige walls, which populated the campaign's headquarters on the sixth floor. The deep blue campaign posters stuck to the walls seemed to match the dozens of identical gray-blue chairs where the twentysomething campaign workers toiled away on headsets, fueled by Starbucks. They weren't selling insurance anymore on this floor of the Prudential, but they were still calculating a kind of actuarial risk with every phone call and keystroke.

Two floors above the main operations of the Obama campaign was its election-day boiler room. Unlike its industrial namesake, this boiler room was operating at a higher altitude and intellectual plane: here the brains of the operation were crunching data and junk food in equal measure. Most of the campaign's senior staff arrived just before sunrise. Why they arrived so early, and why they needed to be there, was unclear, aside from their overwhelming sense of anxiety. The actual work was already well under way, organized by state around a series of pod-grouped desks, where staffers focused on real-time challenges. There were lawyers ready to tackle voting irregularities, turnout experts monitoring the voter numbers, and new media staff working on instant communications. It was their job to track the precise targets in each state, district, precinct, and block. They stood out not least because they were sporting deep blue T-shirts, with the words Boiler Room Staff wrapped around the circular sunrise logo of the 2008 campaign.

In contrast, the senior staff had no real job on this day. Their work was mostly fake: an appearance of action, at the climax of a two-year-long presidential campaign. Others were turning out voters; they were listening to the people turning out voters. Sitting around a giant, square-shaped series of tables, in a big back room, they clicked through e-mail and stared at one another. Every hour or so, the data guys would come in with the latest numbers. Their reports were avidly consumed by Jim Messina, the ghostly pale campaign manager; David Plouffe, the wiry former campaign manager; Dan Pfeiffer, the White House messaging chief and Plouffe confidant; David Axelrod, the president's political strategist and keeper of the flame for hope and change; Jen O'Malley Dillon, the grassroots organizer and deputy manager; Brent Colburn, the campaign's communications director; and Stephanie Cutter, the campaign's deputy manager and communications pit bull. Plouffe and Cutter would walk in and out, depending on their schedule of TV interviews at the nearby Fairmont Hotel. But the others were hanging out because they had nowhere else to go on this, the most important day of their careers.

The reports at the start of the day looked promising. Republican turnout was a little higher than the data models had projected. But there was no great cause for concern. The model predicted a win for Obama, and that was all that mattered.

Then, as the morning dragged on, the mood turned anxious. As the data continued to flow in to the boiler room, the turnout flattened. In areas with strong Latino and African-American populations—the very parts of the battleground states where they had devoted so much effort to registering new and infrequent voters—the numbers were trending down. In Cuyahoga County around Cleveland, Ohio, the African-American turnout was down in the part of a state most critical to winning the presidency. The call went out to the ground staff in Cleveland, and the response was clear: turnout was not down at all. In fact, it was so high, and the flow of voters so fast, that it was hard to check them all off the massive voter list that represented the wired intelligence of the Obama campaign. The only thing that was trending down was the campaign's ability to capture data.

"Guys," said Plouffe, for once shedding his normally nervous energy. "It's the only part of the campaign where it's like throwing darts. Even if the turnout is down, we're right where we need to be to win the election."

By early evening, the senior staff was relaxed enough to drop their pretense of cautious optimism; they were delighted at what they saw. When the polls closed in Florida and Ohio, election officials released their tallies of the early votes. In Ohio, early voting had started a full month before election day; in Florida, such voting began little more than a week out. Jeremy Bird, the campaign's tireless national field director, pulled up the county-by-county vote projections for Ohio, where he had led the campaign to a stunning victory four years ago.

The numbers were startling. In every county, the real votes were within one percentage point of the model. It was a little after 6:30 p.m. in Chicago.

"That's when we knew the model was right," said Dan Pfeiffer. "If the model was right, we were definitely winning. We knew where this was going."

For months the Obama campaign had projected deep faith in one thing, and one thing alone. Not the candidate, even though they were still true believers in Obama's abilities and abiding popularity. Not the media and communications team, even though they believed they were the best in the business. But the data and the ground game: the combination of volunteers, organizers, and computer modeling that set them apart from anything else in presidential politics—including themselves in 2008.

For months, as they exuded confidence in their numbers, the media, along with Republicans, had gainsaid and doubted. Such misplaced confidence. So typical of the zealots who were fooled by an untested candidate four years ago.

Now, though, the confidence was rooted in something real.

Two hours after looking at the Ohio numbers, Plouffe was sitting next to O'Malley Dillon when they pulled up the real vote counts from Florida. The tally was 75 percent complete, and it seemed self-evident that they were headed for victory. At the start of the campaign, two years earlier, the conventional wisdom was clear: there was no way Obama could win Florida. Now they were looking at the outstanding votes, which leaned heavily toward Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. The consensus of the pundits and political insiders could not have been more wrong. For Plouffe, that was almost as important as winning the election itself.

He moved to a side room to call Obama.

"You ought to talk to Jim so he can give you the official news," Plouffe told the president, who was still at his home in Hyde Park. The votes were getting counted far more quickly than four years ago, and the night was moving swiftly to its resolution.

Messina took the phone and Plouffe left the room. The anxious knot of a campaign manager emerged unfrayed a few minutes later.

"That was the coolest thing I have ever done," he announced.

Plouffe returned to the phone.

"Can I tell the First Lady?" Obama asked.

"I wouldn't tell her quite yet," said Plouffe. "I would wait another half an hour."

The only suspense was the precise time of victory and the identity of the state that would breach the 270 mark in the electoral college. Would they carve a trail through Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada? Nevada and Iowa were already in the bag, thanks to huge advantages in early voting. Colorado was less certain, but the boiler room soon heard the Denver Post was going to call the state early for Obama. Independent voters were outperforming the campaign's model, even though they were down from 2008. Plouffe had bet the rest of the inner circle that they would end up with 332 votes in the electoral college; with each new state, he was edging closer to nailing the final count. He wasn't shy in pointing out his predictive powers.

The president's senior aides were debating the state of Virginia—where Mitt Romney was faring worse than John McCain had in 2008—when NBC's election desk called Ohio and the entire election for Obama. It was 10:12 p.m. in Chicago, almost an hour earlier than the decisive call in 2008.

The First Family had spent the last several hours at the Fairmont Hotel with friends, watching the TV reports and enjoying a rare moment of privacy after months on the road in full public view. When the senior team arrived from the boiler room, they found three staffers there already: Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary; Jay Carney, his successor; and Jon Favreau, Obama's longtime speechwriter. In spite of their confidence in the data and the ground game, they were still deeply superstitious. Gibbs, Axelrod, and Plouffe all wore the same ties they had sported four years earlier, when they briefly and tearfully visited Obama on election night.

This night was far more easygoing. The family, friends, and staff were just waiting for Mitt Romney to place the historic phone call that would end the 2012 election once and for all. Their mood was little short of elated. For the next twenty minutes, they celebrated the election calls made by each of the TV networks.

Obama walked up to his senior aides and hugged them all. "Thank you," he said. "This one actually means more to me than the last one. It feels better."

The call from Romney had not come. As the delay dragged on, some of the president's closest friends grew anxious. "Should we call him?" asked Valerie Jarrett. "What is taking him so long?"

"I don't care if he calls at three a.m.," said Obama. "We just won."

Four years earlier, the new president-elect walked onto an open-air stage in Grant Park to deliver his victory speech behind a thick shield of bulletproof glass. On an unseasonably warm November night, the lights of Chicago's skyline sparkled above a quarter of a million people who surged into the park on the shores of Lake Michigan. Four years later, the Midwestern winter was pressing in as usual, forcing the commander in chief and just ten thousand supporters to take shelter in the sterile convention space of McCormick Place. For the agents managing the president's personal protection, the hall was perfect. For the true believers who had returned him to the bubble of the Secret Service, it was a frustrating place.

There was no bar and they wanted to drink.

Obama stepped on to the stage with his family to the soundtrack of the 2008 campaign: Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." Soon after he kissed his wife and daughters, the newly reelected Obama devoted his longest thanks to his second family. "To the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics," Obama said to the hall, heaving with supporters. "The best," he continued, nodding his head. "The best ever.

"Some of you were new this time around, and some of you have been at my side since the very beginning. But all of you are family. No matter what you do or where you go from here, you will carry the memory of the history we made together, and you will have the lifelong appreciation of a grateful president. Thank you for believing all the way, through every hill, through every valley. You lifted me up the whole way, and I will always be grateful for everything that you've done and all the incredible work that you put in."

Then he started telling the stories of some archetypes; some notional characters who might have volunteered for his reelection.

"I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics who tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests. But if you ever get the chance to talk to folks who turned out at our rallies, and crowded along a rope line in a high school gym, or saw folks working late in a campaign office in some tiny county far away from home, you'll discover something else.

"You'll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who's working his way through college and wants to make sure every child has that same opportunity. You'll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who's going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift. You'll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse who's working the phones late at night to make sure that no one who fights for this country ever has to fight for a job or a roof over their head when they come home.

"That's why we do this. That's what politics can be. That's why elections matter. It's not small. It's big. It's important."

As soon as the president finished, the parties began at the back of the hall. There were formal donor receptions and informal staff celebrations. But Obama's closest aides still could not make their way to a bar for a beer. Jon Favreau, the president's speechwriter, could barely move through the crowd. David Plouffe and David Axelrod were mobbed as celebrities and soaked up everyone's adulation. So the inner circle decided to retire to the Fairmont Hotel for a private party.

By the time they arrived, the hotel bar was long closed, and they gathered in Axelrod's suite. They called down to room service for champagne, but the front desk politely declined their request. Chicago law prohibited drinks at such an hour. At that point, Jen Psaki, the traveling campaign spokesperson, volunteered to walk down to the front desk to negotiate. Did they know that Jim Messina, the campaign manager, was upstairs and thirsty?

"Look, we love you guys," said the woman on the front desk. "We love the president. We are so grateful for the business you've given us and that you're all here tonight and that the president watched it here. But we could lose our liquor license."

"Well, we know the mayor," said Psaki of her old boss, the former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

"Sorry," said the woman on the other side of the desk. "We can't do it."

The victorious campaign staff devised a new plan.

Each of them returned to their rooms, grabbed a laundry bag or pillowcase, and cleaned out the minibar. They walked back to Axelrod's suite, dumped the laundry bags upside down on the countertop, and turned on MSNBC to find that the election desk had yet to call the result in Florida, where the counting process was as broken as it was twelve years earlier.

It was 3:00 a.m., and they realized they had missed one of the highlights of the night. In all their focus on data and state-by-state results, they had not yet seen Karl Rove's spectacle on Fox News. The architect of Bush's 2004 reelection—the campaign they had set out to emulate in two elections of their own—was dumbfounded by the night's results. He insisted on challenging the decision of Fox's election desk to call Ohio for Obama, and the hubristic clash of Rove's bluster with the voting data was gripping television. They fired up a laptop and watched Rove's meltdown until the dawn. At the height of their powers, some of the greatest political strategists of their generation were cradling airplane bottles of liquor as the cast of MSNBC's Morning Joe trickled on set.

They ordered some pizza, which room service promptly delivered and David Axelrod just as promptly dripped all over his shirt. Almost all of them had journeyed together from an unlikely beginning on a frigid day in Springfield, Illinois, almost five years ago. From hope to hell and back again, many times over. Their celebration was pitiful, and they knew it. Such small bottles on such a big night.

After just a couple of hours of sleep, at 9:00 a.m. central time, it was time for a conference call on the fiscal cliff. There was no real chance to rest or celebrate.

Later that day, the newly reelected president of the United States walked into the sixth-floor offices of the Prudential building to talk to his staffers. Jim Messina was so pumped up after introducing Obama that he punched the air as he walked away from the simple microphone stand. There was no bulletproof barrier, no presidential podium, and no teleprompter with prepared remarks. Just Barack Obama, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, and his silver tie loosened under an unbuttoned collar.

"So, you guys," he began, as his young staffers giggled.

"You know, I try to picture myself when I was your age. And I first moved to Chicago at the age of twenty-five, and I had this vague inkling about making a difference. I didn't really know how to do it. I didn't have a structure, and there wasn't a presidential campaign at the time that I could attach myself to. Ronald Reagan had just been reelected and was incredibly popular. So I came to Chicago knowing that somehow I wanted to make sure my life attached itself to helping kids get a great education, or helping people living in poverty to get decent jobs and be able to work and have dignity. Make sure that people didn't have to go to the emergency room to get health care. And I ended up being a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago where a group of churches were willing to hire me, and I didn't know at all what I was doing. And you know the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities. Because it taught me the hopes and aspirations, and the grit and resilience of ordinary people. And it taught me the fact that under the surface differences, we all have common hopes and we all have common dreams. And it taught me something about how I handled disappointment, and what it meant to work hard on a common endeavor. And I grew up. I became a man during that process.

"And so when I come here and I look at all of you, what comes to mind is not that you guys actually remind me of myself. It's the fact that you are so much better than I was. In so many ways. You're smarter, and you're better organized, and you're more effective. And so I'm absolutely confident that all of you are going to do just amazing things in your lives. What Bobby Kennedy called the ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake, that's going to be you."

He began to wipe a tear from his right eye.

"I'm just looking around the room and I'm thinking, wherever you guys end up, in whatever states, in whatever capacities, whether you're in the private sector, in the not-for-profit, or some of you decide to go into public service, you're just going to do great things. And that's why even before last night's results, I felt that the work that I had done, in running for office, had come full circle. Because what you guys have done means that the work I am doing is important. And I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud of all of you."

He wiped another tear away. And then another. By the time he wiped away the third, his young staffers were cheering and applauding.

"What you guys have accomplished will go in the annals of history. And people will read about it and they will marvel about it. But the most important thing you need to know is that your journey is just beginning. You're just starting. And whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what you guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come."

He exited to the right, wiping his left eye now, as his young staffers cheered wildly. He spent hours shaking hands and talking to every single staffer and volunteer at his own headquarters.

In five years on the national stage, it was Obama's most explicit statement about his own mortality, a sense of his nearing the end of a long journey. But it was also the most meaningful statement about the purpose of his politics. What kind of hope and change did he have in mind through all these campaigns? Why was he so much bolder when campaigning than governing? Obama's campaigns were not just a means to an end, like so many others before. The common endeavor had its own purpose. His time as a community organizer was one long training program—both for him and his community. Now he saw his presidential campaign as one long training program for the next political generation.

A few hours later, his closest aides dragged themselves on board Air Force One for the return to Washington with a president who was in an unusually reflective and talkative mood. Two thousand eight was about an idea, he told them. This time was different. After four hard years, the American people looked at his leadership and his accomplishments and decided to reelect him. It was not a decision based on the hope that he would be able to do the job. They actually believed he could do the job.

As they flew back to Washington, the Air Force One pilot, Col. Scott Turner, interrupted the president, alongside some of his crew. They were carrying a giant sheet cake to congratulate their most important passenger. As they posed for photos, the president deadpanned: "There is somebody flying this plane, right?"

Political campaigns can indeed seem small, even silly. As small and silly as a laundry bag full of minibar bottles, drained to the last drop by a dozen people who had just overcome supersized odds—and similarly large egos—to preserve the vast powers of their historic candidate and president. This is the story of how they did it, in big and small ways. Unlike their first campaign, they could not rely on a high concept like hope; after four years of economic hardship, there weren't enough hopeful voters to assure them of victory. They could not use their candidate's biography to fill out the blank page of a political story; that book was already written. They could not promise sweeping new policies; their ideas for governing were mostly set in stone by four years of policymaking from the Oval Office.

All they could do was craft a narrative that recast their lead character in a different kind of drama. They needed to rewrite the script of so many years of struggle, screwups, and downright failure.

"You want to make it to the big leagues in terms of presidencies," said Dan Pfeiffer, the war-weary White House director of communications. Pfeiffer began the 2008 cycle as a young man but had aged inside the West Wing faster than the president. His personal mission was to stop his boss from turning into, as he put it, a black Jimmy Carter:

"After everything, after the country took such a gamble and so many people invested so much in the president, if it didn't work out, if he was rejected, what would that mean? What would it say to people? What would it say to young people who knocked on doors and got involved in politics for the first time? What would it say to African-Americans and Latinos who waited in line seven hours to vote in 2008 and 2012? On a personal level, this is someone that has been a gigantic part of our lives. Most of us have spent more time around him and doing things for him than with our own families for the past six years."

Barack Obama was, by now, familiar with hard things. In the rearview mirror, each campaign seemed inevitable and effortless. In actual fact, the path to victory was more than troublesome; it was strewn with failure. In early 2008, few in Washington believed Obama could win in Iowa; few inside the campaign believed he would lose in New Hampshire a few days later. A string of primary victories gave way to primary defeats in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A great convention in Denver was swamped by the deluge of intrigue surrounding Sarah Palin's nomination.

The vast crowds at Obama's inauguration were replaced on the National Mall by Tea Party protesters. A year of active and sweeping legislation was followed by the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts. Health-care reform seemed dead, then was resurrected. The shellacking of the midterm elections in 2010 was swiftly followed by a flurry of victories in a lame-duck Congress, including the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

The 2012 campaign began at a point of political despair, in the dark days after the debt ceiling debacle of 2011. That sense of despair never really left the Democratic Party, even as the Chicago boiler room team insisted its plan would lead to victory. Negativism and nerves seeped into Obama headquarters in a way that rarely happened in 2008. The building felt like an insurance business because there was so much to lose and the risk of defeat was so real. Victory in 2012 was all the sweeter for that triumph; for defeating not just the other side but the doubters on the inside.

"It was vindication," said Plouffe. "Like Iowa in 2008. Not just vindication of where we saw the race but the kind of campaign we ran. It was vindication of his leadership. It was an up-or-down vote on him. And it was hard. Harder than '08 because of the circumstances. The primary was historic. But this was a two-year battle, and eight months were really intensive, from March through November. This was so different."

Different and difficult: from the biggest policy debate to the smallest personal conflict, the reelection of Barack Obama rested on a team that showed few signs of coming together until it was almost too late. Contrary to the self-conscious mythmaking and the conventional wisdom about the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the Obama machine was rarely as smooth running as its electoral success suggested. This is the story of the fractious team that boiled down an entire presidency into a simple series of messages. It is not a tick-tock of the 2012 election and all its component parts, but a study of how a small and divided group overcame a monumental challenge: to redefine the reality of a mostly unpopular president at a mostly unhappy time. Their biggest opponent was very rarely Mitt Romney and the Republicans; they were running against the economy and against one another. The fear and loathing of 2012 existed less on the campaign trail than inside the White House and its campaign headquarters.




TWO

THE DEEP END

The 2012 campaign coalesced more than a year before anyone would vote for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

It was not the best place to start: the summer of 2011 was the worst period of Obama's presidency. Worse even than the shellacking of the midterm elections, seven months earlier, when the Republicans won the House. The White House was staring at political polling that plunged new depths of misery, at a time when its principals needed to set an optimistic course toward victory. The task of finding a successful strategy looked almost overwhelming to many loyal Obama aides. At the beginning of a sink-or-swim campaign, they felt like they were drowning in bad news and numbers.

Genre:

On Sale
Sep 17, 2013
Page Count
288 pages
Publisher
Twelve
ISBN-13
9781455581573

Richard Wolffe

About the Author

Richard Wolffe is executive editor of MSNBC.com and former senior White House correspondent for Newsweek. His book about the first Obama campaign, Renegade, was an instant New York Times bestseller.

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