Uber Greases The Wheel With Obama's Old Campaign Manager : All Tech Considered Uber is hiring David Plouffe, the mastermind of Obama's 2008 campaign, to power its own political strategy. What can a tech-savvy political animal offer a ride-sharing service?
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Uber Greases The Wheel With Obama's Old Campaign Manager

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Uber Greases The Wheel With Obama's Old Campaign Manager

Uber Greases The Wheel With Obama's Old Campaign Manager

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama's former campaign manager has gone to work for Uber - but don't expect to get him on your app. The ride-sharing startup service, based in San Francisco, has hired David Plouffe in the hope that the strategist who helped elect the president can steer Uber through a thicket of local regulatory disputes and set a course for future development.

We're joined now from San Francisco by NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks very much for being with us.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: So why does Uber need one of the - well, one of the obviously best and best paid political strategists in the country?

SHAHANI: Well, first off, they can afford him, right? Full time. I tried to find out exactly what Plouffe is getting paid. Uber won't say, but the company is valued at something like $18 billion. And in terms of why they need so much muscle, Uber is taking on the taxi industry, for one. Cabbies are saying that Uber is just a smartphone-enabled taxi and should be subject to all the same roles they are. And that level of regulation would really hurt Uber's business. Then, there's the whole part about insuring part-time drivers. Uber has a million-dollar insurance policy, but it's still very limited as to when it kicks in.

SIMON: So what is David Plouffe's job on day one, would you guess?

SHAHANI: Well, there are a lot of campaigns to be fought. Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick is spinning this one as an epic campaign of Silicon Valley innovation against the big taxi cartel - those are his words, not mine. Uber won't get into the details but presumably, Plouffe is going to lead a big marketing push and the both of them appeared this week on Bloomberg TV to talk about the partnership.

SIMON: Let's play a piece of that. This is Travis Kalanick talking about what David Plouffe's going to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STREET SMART")

TRAVIS KALANICK: You know, it's about communications, policy, branding and strategy - and weaving that together to tell a story in the cities that we're going to do; about how safe the rides are, about the tens of thousands of jobs we're creating every month and making sure cities understand the progress that Uber represents.

SIMON: Tell a story - now that's become a very political phrase, like, we have to establish a narrative for this campaign.

SHAHANI: Oh, yeah, a very strong one. And mind you, Obama's 2008 campaign was a social media home run. And that was well before the app ecosystem and smartphones took off. And so you know, you'll recall in Obama's campaign there were homegrown sites and My Personal Obama Testimony.

So now we might see a My Uber Stories take off, with, you know, dads and moms talking about how they can pay the bills. So presumably, bringing on Plouffe is in part an effort to push out the stories that show, hey, Uber is good for the public.

SIMON: I doubt Uber is valued at $18 billion just because it wants to schlep people from point A to point B. They just started deliveries on demand in Washington, D.C., in fact, and a lot of people wonder if they're not trying to position themselves to be the next Amazon; deliver anything, anywhere.

SHAHANI: You know, Uber is experimenting with the transportation of people and goods - and some very kitschy transportation too; I mean, they did Valentine's Day roses and this weird, get-a-kitten-for-an-hour kind of thing. And it could be that they really expand their wings, their fleet, you know - not to mix metaphors - in the transportation of people and goods. It could be that they go in another direction. They are backed by Google Ventures. They just made a huge partnership with AT&T so they're clearly looking for partnerships and integration and penetration. And also, Google is about moon shots right? So it's possible that they move beyond transportation itself into other kinds of goods and services.

Now, besides Uber's business model, I'm really curious to see if Plouffe comes up with his own product line or startup. You know, he is a political operative who loves technology, and he used the Internet to win the 2008 campaign for Obama. And frankly, right now, there's a bunch of tech startups that are making Get Out The Vote apps and marketing to candidates in both parties. So we might see Plouffe do his stint at Uber, milk all the amazing Silicon Valley contacts and bounce to his own startup.

SIMON: Aarti Shahani, NPR Technology correspondent. Thanks so much.

SHAHANI: Thank you.

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