2007 Obama campaign memo detailing how to defeat Hillary Clinton surfaces

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.
(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As the summer of 2007 turned into fall, presidential candidate Barack Obama was trailing in the national polls behind Hillary Clinton, "the pundits were pouncing, and donors were panicking," David Axelrod, his top strategist at the time, told Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker.

With a Philadelphia debate and the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner ahead, the Obama team decided in October the frontrunner's main vulnerability was her character, and Axelrod — along with campaign manager David Plouffe, pollster Joel Benenson, deputy communication director Dan Pfeiffer, and strategist Larry Grisolano — put together a memo that Axelrod said was "written for a big Come-to-Jesus meeting, at which Obama wanted us to review the strategy and lay out our plans."

The memo, which Lizza published for the first time in its entirety on Tuesday, states that polling at the time showed voters were looking for a president who "can unite the country and restore our sense of common purpose," and the campaign team agreed that "Barack Obama is change. She is not." Obama's slogan, "Change you can believe in," was a contrast to Clinton not on policy, but on character, the strategists wrote, adding, "We cannot let Clinton especially blur the lines on who is the genuine agent of change in this election." They put together a compare and contrast list, with messages that needed to be emphasized by Obama — Obama they wrote, was "tough on issues and doesn't just tell people what they want to hear; he tells them what they need to know," while Clinton was "driven by politics, not conviction. From the war, to NAFTA, to Social Security, her choice of baseball teams, Clinton is constantly shifting, dodging, and changing positions to satisfy the politics of the moment."

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As Grisolano told Lizza, "Frequently, in campaigns, we say 'contrast,' it's a euphemism for a frontal attack. You can see in the memo, and this is important about the constraints that the message put on us, because if you are the unity guy you can't come out with a crowbar against your opponent. We had to show we were different, but do it in a way that wasn't as direct as most campaigns do." The strategists told Lizza they don't know if the same strategy would work against Clinton today, but she definitely learned something from Obama's team — one of her campaign's first hires was pollster and memo writer Joel Benenson.

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Catherine Garcia

Catherine Garcia is night editor for TheWeek.com. Her writing and reporting has appeared in Entertainment Weekly and EW.com, The New York Times, The Book of Jezebel, and other publications. A Southern California native, Catherine is a graduate of the University of Redlands and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.