David Plouffe: Obama's election guru
Who is David Plouffe?
He's now a senior adviser to the president — the man in charge of the White House's message machine. Little known outside of Washington, Plouffe (pronounced "pluff") is widely regarded as the most talented strategist in the Democratic Party. After spending most of his career in campaign roles, Plouffe was brought into the White House earlier this year to help craft policy. His move into the West Wing was widely seen as an indication of how worried Obama and his other advisers are about his re-election, especially with unemployment likely to remain at around 9 percent right up to November 2012. With the relentlessly pragmatic and detail-oriented Plouffe now shaping Obama's image on a daily basis, political considerations play a part in every decision the White House makes. "Everything is about the re-elect," an insider who's seen Plouffe's influence firsthand told The New York Review of Books. "Where the president goes, what he does."
What's his background?
Plouffe made his mark directing campaign efforts for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, and then managed campaigns for Democratic candidates in Massachusetts, Delaware, and New Jersey. When he became Obama's campaign manager, in 2007, Hillary Clinton was the party's presumptive nominee and had much of the party leadership behind her. Plouffe realized that if Obama could defeat Clinton in Iowa, the first primary state, he would put himself on the map as a serious contender. Then, rather than focus on Super Tuesday, a month later, Plouffe dispersed resources to usually ignored smaller states, picking up delegates who were critical to Obama's victory. In the general election against John McCain, Plouffe also went against conventional wisdom by deploying resources to virtually every state, which forced the Republican candidate to fight for GOP-friendly turf in the South, the West, and suburban areas that Democrats had historically ceded. "David is just very organized, very smart. He always has a plan, and then he executes a plan in a methodical way," said former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, for whom Plouffe served as deputy chief of staff in 1997–98.
What's his mission for 2012?
Winning back independent voters. Obama secured 52 percent of their votes in 2008, helping him take traditionally Republican states such as Indiana and North Carolina. But independents deserted the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, and Obama's approval rating among swing voters now stands at 35 percent. Democratic strategists believe that Obama alienated many independents, who typically dislike partisan quarrels, during the fierce battles over health care in 2009 and 2010. He further disappointed them with his inability to kick-start the economy. Acutely mindful that the center is where presidential elections are usually won, Plouffe has tried to position Obama as a nonideological leader who's free of "the stale ideas of the Left or Right" and focused "on what's going to be right for the country." Says Plouffe, "Compromise isn't a dirty word."
Is this approach popular?
Not with liberals. Christina Romer, former chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, warns that Obama's fear of confrontation is letting Republicans control the agenda. If the president doesn't propose a major jobs or stimulus program soon, she says, the economic malaise will continue into 2012. "And then it's awfully hard to get re-elected." Other Democrats worry that the president's constant compromising has disheartened the party's base, especially young idealists. "I know a lot of the kids who worked hard in 2008," says W. Hodding Carter III, a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "They walk around like cattle who've been hit with stun guns."
What will be Obama's main message?
With the economy in the doldrums, Team Obama will focus on the character of his Republican opponent. If that nominee is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an insider told Politico.com recently, Obama's campaign will try to portray him as a "weird" and inauthentic candidate who has flip-flopped on everything from abortion to universal health care. "He's a world-class political contortionist," says Plouffe. Should Texas Gov. Rick Perry win the nomination, Obama will likely paint him as a Tea Party radical and a hypocrite who talks small government but hands out millions in state contracts to cronies and campaign contributors. Obama, meanwhile, will be presented to voters as a trustworthy man of character and maturity — "the only adult in the room."
Will that strategy work?
It's early, but at this stage the White House has a lot of minds to change. Most independents, polls show, were unhappy with Obama's debt-ceiling compromise, and many question his toughness. A recent Gallup poll of registered voters showed that in a hypothetical election, Romney would beat Obama by 48 percent to 46 percent. Perry, meanwhile, would tie with Obama at 47 percent. Independents preferred both Romney and Perry to the president. But it's 15 months before November 2012, and Plouffe knows a lot will happen in that time. "It's going to be a very close, competitive election," he says, "a street fight for the presidency."
Meanwhile, in Chicago…
The election is still 15 months away, but the president's campaign office is already up and running in the Windy City. Dozens of social-media experts, digital strategists, fund-raisers, and phone-bank volunteers are now working at Obama for America's 50,000-square-foot Chicago office, which opened up shop in April. The campaign is already delivering on fund-raising. In the three months leading up to July, Obama collected $86 million, more than all of the Republican candidates combined. By the time the election rolls around, many experts predict, Obama may have raised and spent a total of $1 billion. This is the first time in four decades that an incumbent president has tried to win re-election with a campaign headquartered outside Washington. But being based outside the capital, says David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist in Chicago, allows staffers to "concentrate on their mission and not get distracted by the day-to-day yammerings of the punditocracy in Washington."