President Obama's Campaign Manager Speaks Out

Back in 2006, a group of people met to talk about Barack Obama, and his chances of winning the Presidency. One of the people at the meeting was David Plouffe, who went on to become one of the key figures in answering those questions, becoming the manager of the Obama for America campaign. He details those experiences in a new book, “The Audacity to Win.” Host Michel Martin speaks to David Plouffe for more.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, it's believed to have been the largest gathering of Native American tribal leaders ever. It happened yesterday in Washington. It was hosted by the White House. We'll tell you more about it in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to go back to a day in 2006 when a small group of people met in an office building in Chicago. The topic was Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator. And the question was whether he could become president of the United States, whether he should even try.

One of the key people at that meeting was David Plouffe. He went on to become one of the key figures in answering those questions, becoming the manager of the Obama For America campaign. He has just written a book about the experience called "The Audacity To Win." He joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you for coming.

DAVID PLOUFFE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I'm sorry to have to bring you out in on such a difficult day, after the difficult events at Fort Hood yesterday. And I just wanted to ask if you think the president struck the right note yesterday in talking about it?

PLOUFFE: Well, I do. It's obviously a terrible tragedy, and it does make talking about politics certainly take a backseat, very somber.

MARTIN: To that end, though, he had to give remarks about this as he was concluding the tribal leader's conference yesterday. I just want to play a short clip from the beginning of his remarks. Here it is.

BARACK OBAMA: I hear that Dr. Joe Medicine Crow was around, and so I want to give a shout out to that Congressional Medal of Honor winner. Good to see you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: And then, he goes on from there to talk about - to give a statement as one would expect him about the events at Fort Hood, offering condolences, and his take on the events. But I did want to ask about - there were some talk about that because the cable networks went to his comments immediately, and wondered, and it was a little bit awkward. And it kind of make some people wonder whether he's really moved into the presidential space, whether he's really taken on the role of the president of the United States, commander-in- chief of the Armed Forces, the leader of the free world. What do you think?

PLOUFFE: I don't have a lot of tolerance for even this discussion. I think it's a - I think in every meaningful way, he's leading us in profound ways internationally, and here domestically. And I think I couldn't be prouder of the job he's doing.

MARTIN: Let's go back to the beginning. And early on, you and other Obama advisers were debating what he should say about his decision to consider getting into the presidential race. He earlier gave an, some people call a Sherman-esque statement on "Meet the Press" saying he was not going to run. And then he had to walk it back. So, then he went and had this meeting, and rehearsing the sort of the standard non-answers, and then he said...

PLOUFFE: Why don't we just say the truth? And, you know, that was really a pattern throughout the campaign. He didn't handle things all the time like the political textbook would suggest you do. And I think that was refreshing to people. And one of the reasons so many people who were new to politics or had checked out of politics for a long time gravitated to his campaign.

MARTIN: And what about for you, though? I mean, as a person, you obviously get into politics because you want to do some things, and then of course, you confront the realities of having to do those things, and what you have to do to get to do those things. Was it hard for you to make that adjustment yourself from kind of the way you had trained yourself to think about politics, and what you're supposed to do?

PLOUFFE: It's a good question. I think a lot of us had been in professional politics for a long time. And so we had to unlearn some of what we had learned, you know, and he consistently, from a tone perspective, really tried to avoid taking the low road, tried to engage in discussion as opposed to soundbites at all times.

We were grassroots campaign, and oftentimes in politics you're taught that that's secondary to, like, television advertising. And so, and listen, for those of us that were involved in the campaign, it was the kind of campaign we idealized and really never thought we'd be a part of. And that's what made it such a special experience.

MARTIN: You know, there's one scene early in the book that fascinated me when you had a meeting with then-Senator Obama and Michelle Obama, and some of his key people, and they were asking, what's going to be the impact on the family? You know, we have two young kids, you have young children, and again, people - the instinct was to sugar coat it. And to say, well, no, he'll be home every Sunday. And then finally, at one point you said, no, no, no, he's not going to be here. He's going to be gone, you're going to be running this by - you know...

PLOUFFE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...you just sort of tell the - and I was fascinated by this, because you yourself paid some family costs. I'm not sure people always think about these kinds of things. You were supposed to take your son to Disneyland right after the midterm elections, and you had to put that trip off. What do you - how you want people to think about that? What do you think people should know about that, particularly the people who aren't used to seeing politics up close?

PLOUFFE: Well, listen, I think that there is a personal toll to any endeavor like this. It's just not a political campaign, you're trying to get a business off the ground. Obviously, the greatest toll is paid by people in our military. But the notion was that I think we served him well in the beginning as he was thinking about this, because while there was a few efforts to suggest you could do this differently, we generally came around to the viewpoint unanimously that the advice was: there are no shortcuts.

You are in this completely. You have to allow these things to consume your life. I wish that wasn't the case. But politics, you know, we're not a company that's going to be around for 25, 50, 100 years. It's got deadlines. It's got elections. The most important thing in politics is time. You've got to maximize it. And we live in a world where every moment, you know, there are inquiries coming in, and there was a lot of attention paid to this election. So, I think, for everybody involved in the campaign, those with kids, those without kids.

Now, luckily, we all got along. One of the things I think comes through in the book is we had a good chemistry, we are a family. Because presidential campaigns are almost intolerable as they are. If you're not getting along, if there's infighting, I don't know how you can survive that. And we were lucky to have a great esprit de corps in the campaign.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I am speaking with David Plouffe, he's the campaign manager for the Obama For America campaign. He's just written a new book about that experience, it's called "The Audacity to Win."

You talk about the chemistry on the campaign, and the kind of the bond that you all had. One of the things that's interesting to me is the biggest misstep of the campaign, which you talk about in the book, is the Jeremiah Wright episode, the whole situation with Rev. Wright who was the Obamas' longtime pastor. They were members of the church, married at his church. And this became clear that he was going to be a problem, even as soon as Senator Obama announcing his candidacy.

I'm interested to know why you think you guys didn't figure that out earlier? And I am wondering, and I know in the book you suggest it is probably because of the timeframe. You had to get this campaign up and running early, so perhaps you didn't have as much time to do the due diligence. I'm wondering whether part of it was racial? Was it a sensitive area and you didn't want to ask about in part because many of his senior advisers were white, and this is an African- American church, and was perhaps perceived as too private?

PLOUFFE: No, I don't think it was racial. And, yes, we did have time pressures in terms of doing the research. But, you know, this is just a fundamental mistake that was made. And I think partially it was, we got questions about this in the beginning, and said obviously he doesn't agree with everything that's been said. You know, we all have, I have, I'm a Catholic, I've heard things I don't agree with, certainly.

I would argue that these are particularly inflammatory. He wasn't there for certainly the most incendiary ones. So I think, part of it was we thought we kind of dealt with it. And that we'd get questions about it, and we kind of thought we knew what we'd say. But what we didn't do, and it's really unforgivable, and we failed the candidate in this regard, is kind of go through every sermon he ever gave and watch them.

You know, we had read some of them and knew there'd be some problems. But, you know, when some of those clips came out on television, that was the first time any of us had seen them on TV or on a video. So, it was a big mistake, and I think that the only way we got through that really was, you know, Barack Obama deciding to give that speech in Philadelphia, which certainly is not the way you're supposed to handle these things.

You don't elevate your problems, he did. He said, this deserves a thoughtful response. And I think the American people said, you know what, Wright still may bother us but we like the way he handled that. And it was a leadership moment.

MARTIN: And how do you then translate that - I think a lot of people were interested in that too, because his instinct on this very different from that of his senior advisers. But then let's fast forward to the Henry Louis Gates issue, where he was arrested by the Cambridge Police, a white Cambridge police officer. There's still a difference of opinion about what was said, and what set it off, but then the president again, seemed to have elevated that episode by talking about it at a press conference. What do you think about that? Do you think that was a leadership moment?

PLOUFFE: Well, I think, you know, he tends to answer questions. I think that the way he handled it after the press conference was - struck exactly the right tone, and I think was meaningful to people, which is sometimes to try and turn down the heat a little bit and bring people together and have conversations. It doesn't mean you're always going to agree.

And so I think that - I think there's a hunger out there for that. I mean, there's clearly people on the, you know, kind of the edges of both parties that would rather yell. But I think the vast majority of Americans would prefer a little less heat in our politics, certainly coming out of this town, and a little bit more discussion.

MARTIN: But I - just to press upon just for one more question, it seems to - it struck me that there are some people who very much want to talk about these issues, but there are some people who very much don't want to. They just don't care. Either they don't care or they don't think it's important or they just don't talk about it. And I just wonder, how does he mediate that going forward?

PLOUFFE: Which issues?

MARTIN: The issue around race.

PLOUFFE: Oh.

MARTIN: The issues around race.

PLOUFFE: Well, I think, you know, what we saw in the campaign was, you know, we saw in Illinois in the Senate race that he was the ability to attract votes from all corner of the state, from all ethnicities, all age groups. So we entered the campaign with a belief that, you know, we thought he had a compelling message. We thought he'd be a compelling leader, and that people would judge him on the merits, even - not based on race, not based on length of service in Washington. I think we ended up being right about that. And so, you know, obviously, race remains an important issue in our country. The notion that somehow his election solves all our problems I think is quite naive.

But I do think that there's - I think it's improved relations. I think there's no doubt that - and with the younger generation, you see that it's less, you know, you see every day - you're walking down the street and you see this, you know, amazing rainbow of kids walking and race just isn't an issue, or economic background or anything, that a lot of the walls break down for younger folks.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will draw from this book?

PLOUFFE: Well, first of all, I hope it's a celebration of Barack Obama, who was, I think one of the best presidential candidates to grace that stage in some time.

MARTIN: Which is interesting for you to say, because you said in the book you weren't sure he was going to be a great candidate. You thought he'd be a great president.

PLOUFFE: Yeah.

MARTIN: You didn't think he'd be a great candidate, right?

PLOUFFE: Yeah, it is. And there obviously are some similarities between the two, but, you know, he was a really a novice to that stage, and it's remarkable how well he performed. And that the power of our grassroots volunteers - I hope will come true in the book - is exactly what they meant to the campaign, because they meant everything. They founded our campaign. They organized it. They moved our message person to person. And they also really motivated he and our campaign.

MARTIN: How do you extrapolate - last question to you. How do you extrapolate what happened during the campaign to sort of going forward now, that the president's confronted with tremendously complex and difficult sort of legislative issues, tours. Can you translate the lessons you learned from the campaign to the lessons for governing now? And if so, what are they?

PLOUFFE: Well, I think the insights we saw in the campaign - first of all, he's a very strategic and long-term person. So he's not going to get buffeted about or make adjustments based on the politics or fascination of the moment. He knows where he wants to go. He thinks it's the right direction, particularly long-term, like health care and energy and financial reform. I think that's really, really important, that he can handle crisis well. We saw that time and time and again in the campaign.

At the lowest moment, he was at his best. And he's not - he doesn't just want to do the safe political thing. In Washington, things tend to be short-term and very political. He thinks for a long time, we've ducked problems and we have to become very thoughtful and long-term on things like health care and energy. By the way, the positive benefits won't be apparent in the next election or the one after that.

MARTIN: David Plouffe is the author of "The Audacity to Win." He was a campaign manager for the Obama for America campaign, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you so much for joining us.

PLOUFFE: Thanks, Michel.

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