LAist Interview: Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe
David Plouffe, at 42-years-old, has likely reached the pinnacle of his career. He successfully guided a little known junior senator from Illinois to the highest echelon of national power while galvanizing an electorate burnt out from eight years of rancorous political discourse. In, "The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory," Plouffe details the campaign from its infancy to present day. He takes us on a highly detailed journey in which he initially demurred at the prospect of managing the campaign, through the difficulties of the two-year campaign and the ultimate elation felt after America elected its first black president. He joined us Monday for a chat about what that experience was like, why he was surprised by McCain's campaigns tactics and what lies ahead for the architect of Change as he readies for an appearance Tuesday in Pasadena.David, welcome to LAist. Thanks for speaking with us
Thanks for taking an interest.
You seemed to have agonized over whether or not to manage Obama's campaign due to a plethora of personal and professional issues. What would your life be like if you had said no and what would have happened if someone else was at the helm?
Well, I think we would have had the same outcome. I would have been heavily involved in the campaign just as an adviser, not as a manager. [We] don't really put a lot of stock in the celebration of staff. Some people have asked, 'Well, if you guys had run Hillary's campaign, would she have won,' and I said, absolutely not. Would a different team have elected Obama? Yeah, I think they would have because this is about the quality of the candidate. We were all bless to work for such a great candidate.
You talked about failing to fully vet Rev. Jeremiah Wright as your own personal failure. Was that the campaign's biggest oversight?
We vetted him some. We didn't do it as exhaustively as we should have. We didn't look at every sermon on tape. I personally should have looked at all the sermons on tape. That was a big oversight, there's no doubt about it. I think the other big mistake we made was [extending] the primary that might have allowed the primary to go on as long as it was. And right now that doesn't seem like a big deal because we won, but you have to remember that we gave John McCain a three-month head start, which is nothing to sneeze at. At the time that could have been a phenomenal mistake though McCain didn't use that time well and it was something we overcame. But, yeah, I would say that was our biggest oversight.
You expected McCain's team to be ready for you guys with guns a blazin'. But they didn't seem to unload when the general campaign began. Were you surprised?
We were very surprised. Here's what we thought would happen: We thought he would use those three months to really organize and get ahead of us in all the battleground states. That didn't happen. We were actually, by the end of June, far more organized on the ground. Second, we thought he would have a better economic message and third, we thought he would try and separate from Bush. None of that happened. I was pleased none of that happened and I thought for sure they would have guns a blazin' for us coming out of the primary. They had three months to get ready and we were extremely fortunate that some political malpractice was at play.
There's a great passage where you talked about whether or not to accept the endorsement of Sen. John Kerry in early January. You and others recommended that Obama not take the endorsement yet Kerry did endorse on Jan. 10. Were you still opposed to it then?
No, my point was that we wanted his endorsement, but with two days before the Iowa caucus, we were dependent on young voters and independents and new voters. It just didn't feel like the best way to close the campaign in getting endorsed by...I mean, he was the previous nominee, so that's kind of as establishment as you can get. Sometimes you make good decisions that pay off in the short term and the long term. I think obviously it worked out in the short term, but in the long term you had the New Hampshire primary (which Clinton won). There was John Kerry endorsing us two days after the primary, which was a very important moment. It sent a strong signal to Democrats across the country that the fight was going to go on. We got compensated twice for what was the right, but unconventional decision.
That moment, which you called a 'tell Kerry no endorsement moment,' where the brain trust decided to delay the endorsement became a rallying cry for you guys and seemed to be the moment you realized you were playing chess, not checkers. Is that accurate?
Well, yeah, I think that's a good example of that. I would refer to the campaign in that way [as a chess match] and to not just think about things in the conventional way. That's what we did well. We didn't always take things on their first track. We really tried to play things out and say, OK, what is most consistent with the strategy and message of the campaign? I may be wrong about this, but my sense is that there are not other campaigns that would have made that same decision so I'm proud of the one we made.
What other 'Tell Kerry no endorsement' moments did you have?
During the primary, we decided to limit the number of debates we were going to give, which led to a lot of grief from Democratic interest groups. We didn't attend an AARP debate in IOWA and we were told that that was going to cost us at the caucuses. I mention in the book that we made very tough scheduling decisions. We didn't attend every event that every Democratic candidate had attended over the years. We wanted to control our own scheduling and get some people to the events that we thought would us help. That means, we didn't always do the traditional events. That was really hard to do because we got a lot of pressure, obviously. We stuck to our game plan on February 5 where everybody wanted to focus on the results of some of the [major] primary's, like the California primary. We didn't do that. We thought Idaho was as important. So, we had a lot of moments like that. But I also think, broadly, we did not evaluate our campaign prospects every day based on the common national media coverage and punditry of the moment. Part of that was because we were such a grassroots campaign and had so much voter contact every day. But we had our own metrics and we would evaluate our campaign through the prism of our own metrics. That's what mattered to us every day. I think that's what was different about our campaign.
The national press corps (like you guys) all seemed to think you would win New Hampshire quite easily. But when Clinton won, the press penned obituaries to your campaign. What's your view on the state of national political journalism?
Well, first of all, it has a very important role in our society, so I hope it continues to flourish. I do think there is a rush to pronounce judgment and also kind of view the campaign through the prism of all campaigns. You might remember by the way, that we went to Berlin to do a major event in the summer after we were the nominee and part of the speech was "I am a citizen of the world," and a lot of people [in the media] criticized that. They said, 'You can't say that,' and 'You have to be more jingoistic.' Well that was just a misreading of where the electorate was. So, I think think they rush...it tends to be the same and too quick of judgments. Now, I will say that in the case of New Hampshire it was too premature to write our obituary, but I couldn't argue with people who said, ,'Boy, Clinton has no gained the upper hand in the race.' I wouldn't argue with that. But a lot of our political news has now turned into sports news; a lot of it looks like box scores - who's up, who's down, who got the hits. Now, that being said, a lot of these investigative pieces that are out there is really good. Some of the stuff out there does focus on the substantive prognostication could not play a more valuable role in our society.
A fascinating read: "The Audacity to Win."
Has horse race journalism hurt political discourse?
Well, I'll leave that to the people who study it. I'm not an academic in that regard. I would say that some of the debates in Washington...a lot of the coverage is about politics, well what does this mean for [the respective congressional and presidential elections in] '10 and '12? And I do think that does a disservice and moves the dialogue to a short term political flavor, which I think is damaging.
Obama seems to have had a more challenging time selling his message in the press these days as opposed to during the campaign. You may disagree with that notion, but, why is it harder for President Obama to sell the public on his plans than it is for candidate Obama?
First of all, we were doing a lot of communication on our own. We had a huge amount of radio, television and Internet advertising. We had a lot of people knocking on doors to get people to register and vote. And the coverage - people think we got glowing coverage, but the truth is, when you're doing well, you get good coverage. The moments we were doing well in the primary and the general we got good coverage. The moments we were struggling, like during the fall of '07 when Hillary won New Hampshire, you don't get good coverage. The questions are, What's wrong with the campaign and why are you struggling?
So, I think now, we're not in a campaign. This is not a campaign. They're trying to convince Congress on health care, but this is not really a comparative exercise. You're out there trying to get something done and the coverage is less about who's up in this poll in Ohio than it is on health care. There's a lot of talk around the House about what the Senate is going to do and I think [Obama] is fighting through that. That's what makes the president unique. He's going to fight hard and all he's worried about is the end result. And there are moments when the talk is about how you're not doing well, but you just kind of fight through that.
You had some harsh words for Clinton's campaign, calling it a juggernaut, machine, etc. Do you know if she has she read the book and, if so, have you received any reaction from her or her team, including [Communications Director Howard] Wolfson and others?
I don't know. I know Howard's got the book, but I haven't heard from him. I know Bob Barnett, my agent, is very close with the Clinton's, said the book is very fair. I talked with a couple of other people on her campaign who thought it was fair. I couldn't write an honest book about the campaign without being clear. I do wind up writing pretty flattering things about her because we were very impress by her, as frustrating as it was to watch her campaign take off. But it will be interesting to see what [Clinton adviser] Mark Penn and others have to say about it. [Note: In one section of the book, Plouffe mentioned that he was surprised Penn stayed on the Clinton campaign when others stepped down, saying he thought Penn was most to blame for her collapse and infighting, a claim later verified by press accounts.]
The book is wonderfully detailed with quotes from all the primaries, from Obama on down. Tell me about the process of culling those quotations and tapping your memory of events that happened, in some cases, years ago.
Well, it wasn't that long ago. The campaign was pretty long for all of us, so these moments are embedded very deeply on our psyche. I was writing about some of the highlights. I can't say that every word was accurate, but the dialogue I put in there was all based on very clear recollections. Obviously, I had a lot of emails, I had some notes. I had some memos and was able to get some help from some of the colleagues who read the manuscript, David Axelrod and others. I think I captured everything accurately, but that was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book right away. If I waited, it would not have been as fresh. My memory is probably something that makes up for my lack of talent in other regards. I had a pretty good recall on all of these.
I want to get away from the book for a minute. In February, you got a lot of heat for giving a paid speech to a pro-government NGO in Azerbaijan. You said you would donate the $50,000 you got from the speech. What did you learn from the controversy?
The whole speaking world is something I'm new to. That trip wasn't exactly the way it was described to me; I thought I was simply going to give a speech to an organization. I learned that I have to be careful, obviously. Given that there was a financial contribution, they had me come in and give a couple hour election discussion about organizing. We had a great discussion about organizing and about elections. We talked about ballots and about voter protection issues. I think anyone who saw my speech in Azerbaijan would be thrilled to hear what I said, some of which was reported on. It was very much about getting young people involved, about technology and about openness. I do think that the digital technology is going to be big tool in Democracy, particularly as cell phones become more and more diversified in terms of their usability. There obviously are a lot of countries where Internet penetration and computer penetration are not high. But if cell phones can replace a lot of what computers do in terms of functionality, talk about a great tool to get information out there.
You are a 40 something professional political operative who has likely achieved the highpoint of your career. What's next for David Plouffe and can you top the 2008 campaign?
Well, I'm not suggesting I'm not going to continue to contribute, but it's helpful to be realistic in saying it would be hard to top that. So, I'm not going to try. I'm going to obviously do what I can to help the president and try and do a good job with my family. I'm sure over time there will be ways to contribute and to professionally build. I have a full appreciation for what a special moment that was and I tried to relay to our staff on the campaign, which was mostly young people, how fortunate they were to be involved in this, but how spoiled they might be. This was a remarkable candidate, a well-funded campaign, a campaign with all the spirit of millions of volunteers - those don't come around very often. By the way, I hope I'm wrong, I hope they come around every four years. It was very, very special thing to be involved with and I was fortunate to be involved in it. But I'm only 42. Knock on wood, I have a lot of time left, but I'm certainly not going to be out there looking for the next Obama campaign because I know how special it was and what a rarity it was.
Will you be managing the 2012 reelection?
Oh, I don't know. That is so long from now and none of us are really focused on it. The Republican contest is beginning...there will be a time for that, but it's not now.
David, thanks very much.
Thank you. Bye.
David Plouffe will be signing copies of his new book tonight in Pasadena.
The event, sponsored by Vromans Books, takes place at 7 p.m. in the All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena.
There is no charge to attend, but the book costs about $30.For information visit Vromansbookstore.com, or call (626) 449-5320