'The Audacity To Win' The Presidency

Author David Plouffe i i

hide captionDavid Plouffe is credited with focusing Obama's campaign on maximizing the total number of pledged delegates, as opposed to focusing solely on primary states.

Penguin Group
Author David Plouffe

David Plouffe is credited with focusing Obama's campaign on maximizing the total number of pledged delegates, as opposed to focusing solely on primary states.

Penguin Group

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory
By David Plouffe
Hardcover, 352 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $27.95
Read An Excerpt.

If anyone is qualified to give a behind-the-scenes tour of Barack Obama's run for the White House, it's David Plouffe. A longtime campaign strategist for the Democratic Party who also managed Obama's 2004 Senate race, Plouffe — who is not serving in the administration — has a new book called The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory.

Plouffe remembers that when he and David Axelrod, who would become Obama's senior adviser, first met with the junior Senator from Illinois to discuss a run for the presidency, the idea seemed far-fetched.

"[Obama] jumped into this in a very unorthodox way," Plouffe tells Terry Gross. "But as it became clear that he was more serious, and this may happen, I think I began to really feel confident that he had the potential to be a terrific president. I wasn't sure he had the potential to be a great candidate."

One of Obama's challenges, Plouffe says, was learning to trust his staff enough to handle the mass of details that can overwhelm a campaign. He writes that in the run-up to the campaign for the Illinois Senate seat in 2004, Obama said he felt he could probably do every job on the campaign better than anyone he might hire to do the job.

"I did not think it was arrogance," Plouffe says. "I just think it was someone who had been, you know, in state Senate races — he had run for Congress once and lost — so you know, he had done most things by himself, and now he was running for statewide office, and so he had to learn to give up a little bit. You know, we all like to control our time, right? And to give that up is a pretty big sacrifice, but it's the only way you can really run a campaign."

Plouffe says that the speed with which the presidential campaign was convened meant Obama's staff didn't have time to fully investigate their own candidate, which led to some embarrassing moments. Not looking deeply enough into Obama's relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago was one gaffe. Plouffe says that when inflammatory quotes by Wright turned up in the media, they weren't prepared for the fallout.

"We weren't caught off guard that Wright had said inflammatory things," Plouffe insisits. "It's just, you know, some of those tapes, when they emerged on ABC and Fox News and then blew up all over the Internet, that was the first time we had seen those videos, and that was really unforgivable. In that respect, you know, we certainly let our candidate down."

But Wright's comments, and the media's response, led to a signal moment for the campaign: Obama's speech about race in Philadelphia. In The Audacity to Win, Plouffe writes that Obama had wanted to address the race issue explicitly, but that until the Wright episode, he and Axelrod had discouraged it.

"The political playbook certainly does not suggest that you elevate an issue like Wright," Plouffe says. "You know, what you try and do is do some interviews and hope it goes away, and what [Obama] said is, 'No, I need to give a speech about this and put it in larger context.' "

"We didn't do any polling," Plouffe continues. But the campaign found that Obama's style was winning voters. "What we saw after the Wright speech was there were still plenty of voters who were concerned about it, obviously, but they all, for the most part, thought that he had handled it like they'd like a leader to and like few politicians these days seem to."

But even as Obama began to pull ahead in the race, the campaign still had to deal with rocky terrain, as when Hillary Clinton stayed in the race beyond the moment when most of the media had declared the primary over. Plouffe says he understood why Clinton took her time conceding, especially because Obama's victory over Clinton was a year-and-a-half in the making.

"It was brutal," Plouffe says. "It was tough, it was close, [but] you know, she didn't take two or three months to kind of get her arms around helping us. She helped us right away, and in profound and important ways."

Clinton met with Obama before finally conceding, but Plouffe says she never levied demands against her support for Obama. Instead, the former senator from New York put all of her effort into helping the campaign defeat John McCain.

Now Plouffe is watching the action from a distance. Two days after the election, his wife had a baby, and he decided not to take a role in the administration. But he says that if Obama comes calling in 2012, he'll pick up the phone.

"I think one of the reasons we were successful," Plouffe says, is that the campaign "had a blank sheet of paper, and we studied history but we were not bound by it, and I think that made us a very strong and effective campaign."

Excerpt: 'The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory'

'The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory'
Note: This excerpt contains language that may offend some readers.

On Friday, January 4, we landed in New Hampshire after 4:00 a.m. As we got to the hotel, it was nearly time for the day's first conference call, so I skipped sleep altogether. Instead I checked our online fund-raising numbers; they were through the roof, with over $6 million raised in the hours since we were declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses. It was like a lit match had been dropped in gasoline. New donors and fund-raisers were showing up everywhere, wanting to help a potential winner, and our previous donors and fund-raisers were digging deeper as their initial investment was rewarded in Iowa.

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory
By David Plouffe
Hardcover, 352 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $27.95

Obama made it clear from the beginning that he did not want to be left shouldering a big debt. I had always managed campaigns that way, so we had prepared for the worst and had hoped for the best, budgeting conservatively post-Iowa and projecting only $10 million raised for all of January. We assumed that even with a loss we could cobble together enough money through our diehard supporters to execute our game plan in the remaining early states. Now, we almost certainly would raise over $10 million in the first eight days of January alone and might raise over $30 million in January, giving us what we believed would be a huge financial advantage for Super Tuesday. In the space of a few hours, we had not just won Iowa but also considerably strengthened our ability to compete against Clinton in a drawn-out slugfest.

Friday morning, sleep deprived but showered, Gibbs, Axelrod, and I climbed into the motorcade idling outside our hotel and thumbed through the morning's stories on our BlackBerrys while we waited for Obama to emerge. We were working our way through the standard road show campaign breakfast — coffee and Dunkin' Donuts to go. I was tired but enjoying the moment of peace when Ax erupted from the backseat.

"Shit!" he yelled out. "I don't believe it."

Well, I thought, I guess the good times can't last forever.

I turned around to face him in the backseat. "What is it?" I asked. "A shitty story? Is it bad?"

He looked up at me with a mixture of despair and incredulity. "I got glazed doughnut in the track wheel of my BlackBerry and it's stuck," he replied. "I can't get the thing to work."

I stared at him for a second before bursting into laughter. In another second the whole van had joined in. Ax looked beleaguered but then finally cracked a smile. For all his brilliance as a communicator and strategist, Ax was legendary within the campaign for spilling food and mishaps with electronic gadgets. But this was the piece de resistance. It had to be a first in the history of smart phones — death by glazed doughnut. If we had lost Iowa, it would have been just another pain in the ass. But we were on cloud nine, so it was part of the adventure. Glazegate.

I was happy to see Ax bask in the post-Iowa glow. This was Obama's campaign, of course. But after him, the DNA of the organization was mostly David Axelrod's. Over the years he and Obama had become more friends than business associates, and Ax had been instrumental to Obama throughout his career. Without David, I'm not sure Obama would have won his 2004 Senate race and made it to the national stage. Many of us who were working on the campaign at senior levels were there because of an Axelrod connection. David's career was very successful by any measure, but I always got the sense that he was yearning for one last ride. Though Ax was a street fighter when he needed to be, at heart he was an idealist. This campaign, fueled by average people and appealing to their best aspirations rather than their darkest fears, was in many ways his ideal. He had come full circle, having started in politics as a young boy handing out leaflets for Bobby Kennedy in Stuyvesant Town, a housing development on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Whatever happened from here on out, I felt that Ax would feel satisfied that he had experienced the campaign he had long yearned for.

Historically, the period between New Hampshire and Iowa was often the most turbulent seven days of campaigning in American politics — and the longest. Working a New Hampshire campaign, you could pack a couple of lifetimes into that short period. For us, New Hampshire came only five days after Iowa — four campaigning days. It could be a ferocious beast, but we thought we could use it to our advantage. The fallout from Iowa would dominate the first couple of days of press coverage. Most observers, if they had to bet their mortgage, would have put their money on Clinton to win the caucuses.

Our Iowa victory in itself was not an earthquake, but when you threw in the eight-point margin, Clinton's third-place finish, and the demographic successes we had, it was seismic.

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

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The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory

by David Plouffe

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