Obama's Winning 'Change' Strategy Beginning with the Democratic primary, president-elect Barack Obama's campaign did not waver in its focus on "change." Journalist Ryan Lizza argues that the constancy and simplicity of Obama's message allowed the candidate to turn his vulnerabilities into assets — and outmaneuver both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
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Obama's Winning 'Change' Strategy

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Obama's Winning 'Change' Strategy

Obama's Winning 'Change' Strategy

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This is Fresh Air. I am Terry Gross. The Obama campaign has been described by some commentators as the best run in modern history. My guest Ryan Lizza has written a behind-the-scenes account of how Obama won. It's published in the new edition of the New Yorker magazine.

Lizza is the magazine's Washington correspondent. He covered the Obama campaign for two years. During the final two weeks of the campaign, he interviewed the strategists and aids who ran it to get a kind of oral history with the understanding that what they told him would not be published until the election was over.

Ryan Lizza, welcome back to Fresh Air. One of the things you found was that strategically, after Hillary Clinton conceded, the Obama campaign felt it needed to win over the up-for-grab votes, people who they call the UFGs for up for grabs. And they thought that, if the election was held then, right after Hillary conceded, that the Obama campaign would have lost. Why did they think that, and what was their strategy for getting the up-for-grab votes?

Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Chief Political Correspondent, New Yorker Magazine): So, they did basically only one national poll in the entire campaign, as my understanding, and that was the initial one right as they were entering the general election period. And they found that Obama was ahead 49 to 44, which is pretty good, five point lead, but not over 50 percent, of course. And they found the up-for-grabs voters were about seven percent, but McCain had a substantial lead with those voters.

And this is not anything new, but it is interesting to realize that, you know, that literally, the entire election was about winning over those up-for-grabs voters. And the profile of these voters was, you might describe them as almost Perot-esque, you know. They weren't - didn't have strong attachments to either party, very anti-Washington, but crucially, very focused on the economy.

So they knew in the general - back when they were first plotting out the general election, that after the conventions, when the general election really starts, the campaign had to be about the economy. It couldn't be about national security. It couldn't be about anything else. It had to be the economy, the economy, the economy, and that's the way that they were going to win those up-for-grabs voters in the end.

And this had some important strategic implications. For instance, when they were negotiating the debates with John McCain's camp, McCain wanted the first debate to be about national security because remember, the debate commission wanted one debate just about national security and one debate just about the economy. And from the Obama campaign's perspective, this was great because national security would be the issue that John McCain was supposedly better than Obama at.

So, expectations for Obama would be great going into that, but more importantly, the debate that they cared a little bit more about, the economically-focused debate, would be after that. So they'd be leaving the debate period focused on the economy. So they were surprised that the McCain campaign was so eager to have things work out that way.

Now, of course, they never could have realized that the Lehman Brothers collapse would happen and the financial crisis would happen and the entire last few weeks of the campaign be focused like a laser on the economic crisis, which played into their strategy perfectly.

GROSS: Now, the pollster for - the main pollster for the Obama campaign, Joel Benenson, found that Obama's image was better defined than McCain's, which was surprising since McCain has been in the Senate for many years. He has run in the Republican primaries more than once. So it was surprising that a newcomer - relative newcomer like Obama was better defined in the public mind than McCain. What explanation was there for that, and how did they use that in the campaign?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, this was a major finding on their part because, when they came out of the primary period, they felt like they had defined Obama in a pretty good way. You know, they felt like he had an anti-Washington reputation, which was good, considering the climate. They felt like he was - most people believed that he sort of told the truth. He had that famous line in the primaries, I'm going to tell you what you need to hear and not what you want to hear. And he had this sort of reform profile that was very beneficial for the climate that they knew was going to exist in the general election and for appealing to those UFGs.

However, they also thought, the one guy on the Republican side who could potentially meet them on that sort of anti-Washington reform criteria was, of course, John McCain. And they were surprised to find in their early polling that, actually, the public did not see McCain that way. The press corps, especially the Washington press corps, especially those of us who covered McCain in 2000, we sort of believed this about McCain. We believed him that he was the one Republican candidate who had sort of reform credentials.

But because the most recent information that most voters had about McCain was their experience with him in the Republican primaries, where he had to get closer to Bush, where he had to, as David Axelrod put it, make some Faustian bargains with the conservative base of the Republican Party, that he left the Republican primaries without that reformer image which could have been a great challenge for the Obama campaign.

So, Anita Dunn, she sort of oversaw all the communications for the Obama campaign. She was explaining a lot of these to me, and she said, really, what we had in the end was not a problem with McCain and the voters and what the voters believed about McCain. We had a constituency problem, and that constituency was the press corps. We had to convince the press corps that this wasn't, you know, their grandfather's John McCain. This was someone else. And so they were not as worried about that as they could have been.

GROSS: So how did that lead to this strategy of having emphasized change within the campaign?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, you know, it was very lucky, and we are all so sick of - at least I am, I have to admit - of the relentless mantra of the Obama campaign being about change, change, change. I mean, they hammered that home at every point they could, and they were very lucky in that, what they realized - this is another quote from Anita Dunn, or at least I am going to paraphrase. She said, it became apparent to them very soon after they defeated Hillary Clinton that basically, the campaign they ran against Clinton was going to work with only a few minor changes against John McCain.

And the sort of implicit argument they made against Hillary Clinton, they did it subtlety because it was a Democratic primary, and you can't go after your opponent, especially someone like Hillary Clinton, who's very well liked among Democrats. You can't be too tough and too aggressive and too negative, and they really never were, but subtly, Obama's argument in the primaries was that she's really not that much different than George W. Bush.

He never said that specifically, but he implied it. When he talked about the economy, he'd essentially talked about it as, you know, the Clinton years and the Bush years as sort of one long period of decline. And that message changed later on. He gave President Clinton lots of credit. He talked about how you need a politician of conviction and not calculation, and that was meant to play into some of the character doubts that people had about Hillary Clinton. But the overall, implicit message was that she's really not much different than George W. Bush.

Now, in the general election, that was the explicit argument about John McCain, is that he is Bush. And they knew from day one that this campaign would be, as David Axelrod said, his famous quote inside the campaign, and he's used this publicly many times, "the voters are looking for the remedy, not the replica." So their whole strategy from day one, in the primaries and in general election, was to position Barack Obama as the remedy and his opponents as the replica. And it's a very simple, very elegant strategy that they never really had to detour too far away from.

GROSS: One of the turning points, you write, for the people who worked in the campaign was in the primary, when he was running against Hillary Clinton. And the CNN-YouTube debate in July with Hillary, he was asked - Obama was asked if he'd be willing to meet separately without preconditions during the first year of his administration in Washington or elsewhere with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries. And he said that he would be willing.

And, as you saw, Hillary pounced on that remark as hopelessly naive, and then the Obama aides were trying to figure out, well, what did they to this - with this. This looks like a losing answer from Obama. So what did Obama do that was a turning point within the campaign?

Mr. LIZZA: The morning after the debate, they're all scattered. They're in cars and planes and leaving the debate site, and they're on a conference call. You know, these campaigns are literally run by conference calls because people are all over the place.

And Dan Pfeiffer tells me this story. And they start writing a memo, sort of walking back Obama from this, what they believed, controversial statement he had made about being willing to meet with folks like Ahmadinejad and other dictators. And Obama is listening to an aide who is talking on the conference call. And he takes the phone from the aide, and he tells everyone, no, we're not going to walk back - and I'm paraphrasing him - no, we're not going to walk back from the statement. We met with Mao. We met with Stalin. This is my position, and you guys go out there and defend it.

So, according to Dan Pfeiffer, instead of writing this memo walking away from Obama's position, they write a memo doing exactly what the boss told them to do. And from the Clinton side, they felt this was quite naive that Obama was going to walk into this buzz saw instead of trying to get out of it. Anyway, so the next seven to 10 days of the campaign was literally about that issue, about whether Barack Obama was too dovish, was too naive to be president.

And from the Obama folks' perspective, they won that battle. And when it was over, they decided that they had gone up against what they feared as this incredibly aggressive, tough Clinton machine that is the most famous machine in Democratic politics, and they had come out unscathed and perhaps ahead.

And it was a huge turning point for the guys - and it's mostly a male communication shop in that campaign, actually, with the exception of Anita Dunn, who actually runs the whole thing. And they came out of that experience with a huge boost of confidence, knowing that they could actually pull this off.

GROSS: One of Obama's aides described Hillary's machine to you as being the most impressive, toughest, most ruthless war room in the world. And I'm wondering what impressions you had of how the Obama campaign felt after the primary about the effect of Hillary's approach to the campaign on the Obama operation.

For example, during the primary, Hillary Clinton's campaign, they hit back really hard. They said, you know, that Obama wasn't really ready to lead. They brought up the Reverend Wright issue. And a lot of Democrats were worried that the way that Hillary was going about trying to knock down Obama, that she was doing things that Republicans could easily pick up on and use against him as well.

So, I'm wondering how the Obama campaign people reacted to that, if they felt that, in the long run, Hillary's tough campaign strengthened the Obama campaign and showed them the things that they'd have to react to and put them out there, or if they felt that it hurt, and it gave the Republicans more ammunition to use against Obama.

Mr. LIZZA: I asked that question with almost everyone I interviewed, and to a person, everyone in that campaign said that that long primary against Hillary Clinton was the best thing that ever happened to Barack Obama.


Mr. LIZZA: You know, for a few reasons. For one, it got out of the way some of the most controversial things about Obama, most especially the Reverend Wright issue, which was debated and played on cable TV for weeks. And on the one hand, it was a dangerous time for that to be out there because people are just getting to know Obama, and you don't want that to define him. But on the other hand, voters were able to process that information.

And over the long run, as the campaign filled in other pieces of Obama's identity and values, that just became one piece of information that you had to grapple with but not something that defined him. If that had come up at the end of the campaign, he could've lost the election. So they believed that the race against Hillary toughened him. It got a lot of the negative stuff out there into the ether early on so people could see it.

There's another reason that the organizers, the field guys in the campaign, liked the long primary season, and that is that Obama was able to introduce himself to voters in all 50 states - actually 48 because he didn't campaign in Michigan and Florida. So through the primary and caucus process, they were able to build the first pieces of their general election structure in these states that in previous primaries, presidential primaries, that presidential candidates would've never campaigned in.

You know, Iowa always has - for Democrats or Republicans, Iowa always has the best-organized state parties in the country. The reason is because everyone's organizing there, you know, year round. Well, they were able to go do the things that you normally do in Iowa in 48 states. And that helped them a great deal in the general election.

And then finally, this could've been different, but the fact that the press focused so much on Obama during the long primary season, it really eclipsed John McCain. And the people inside the Obama campaign, as they were finishing their fight with Hillary Clinton, they were scratching their head and trying to figure out, why isn't John McCain taking advantage of this period of time. And they could never understood why he didn't do much in the spring, when the Obama folks thought that they were a little vulnerable.

GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza. His article, "Battle Plans: How Obama Won"' is published in the new edition of the New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

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GROSS: My guest is reporter Ryan Lizza, and we're talking about his piece in the new edition of the New Yorker. It's called "Battle Plans: How Obama Won." It's a behind-the-scenes look at the Obama campaign.

You write that perhaps the most important decision in the general election for the Obama campaign was the decision to turn down federal funding, something that John McCain criticized him for because John McCain said Obama had agreed, you know, that if McCain turned down federal funding, that Obama would, too. And he went back on that agreement. So why do you think that was the most important decision?

Mr. LIZZA: I didn't realize until I started doing these interviews how big a deal that was, I guess. And it was dangerous at the time because here was Barack Obama in the first big decision of his general election campaign, and he is basically breaking a promise. I mean, he did write a letter. He did promise to stick within that system. And he wiggled out of it because his advisers told him they could absolutely bury John McCain if they raised the money on their own. And that's exactly what happened. But they put together budgets in June, and by September, they were adding - they added over a $100 million to their original budget.

And it just made them able to execute one of the key plans of that campaign, which was to expand the map into states that Democrats have not been able to win in the general election. And without the money, they would not have been able to play in places like North Carolina, Missouri and Colorado and Nevada. They just wouldn't have been able to spend the money on the ads and the mail and the organizing that they were able to do. And that did, you know - two things there, one, it can help you win those states, but if you can't win those states, at the very least, it would force the Republicans to waste money defending those states. And that is exactly what happened.

GROSS: It sounded like they were also trying to accomplish two things with the fundraising. One was to raise money. And two was to use fundraising as a way to get people to join the campaign and become volunteers, getting out the vote and organizing.

Mr. LIZZA: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: And so that was a kind of synergy that they got going between organizing and fundraising. Could you talk about how they did that?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. That's true. If they had stayed within the federal system, they would've been in a way sort of cutting the umbilical cord to their grassroots. And once they decided that they were going to raise all the money for the campaign on their own, that they weren't going to rely on that government check of $84 million, you know, that meant - in a sense, it's like, you know, stage diving, you know. You're jumping into the arms of your supporters. And you have to have that spigot of money on through the whole campaign. And what that did is, I think, it made them tie it a little closer to their grassroots. They cultured and nurtured their supporters.

David Plouffe, the campaign manager, sent these kind of hokey amateur videos out every once in a while explaining strategy to his grassroots and online supporters. So as one of - Jim Messina, Obama's chief of staff, as he told me, you know, they made their online donors feel like insiders, like they owned a piece of the campaign. And if you remember, this was very similar to what Joe Trippi did with the Dean campaign. And that was very important because they needed to keep these guys engaged and donating money, quite frankly.

So on the one hand, dropping out of the campaign finance system from a strict sort of liberal reform perspective was somewhat worrying. But on the other hand, it did make the campaign more of a grassroots enterprise because they had to sort of keep in touch and keep connected to their grassroots. And then, like you said, Terry, it helped them get more data about who these organizers were, and it helped plug them into their organizing system so that they can send these guys out to the states and help them deliver voters to the polls on election day.

GROSS: One of the debates within the Obama campaign had to deal with the celebrity issue. You know, Obama was attracting such big crowds, even in Europe. And McCain started, you know, accusing Obama of being a celebrity and took out that celebrity ad where he was, like, compared to Paris Hilton, Britney Spears. So what was the debate within the campaign about those large rallies?

Mr. LIZZA: I was surprised to learn how rattled they were by that Paris Hilton ad. I didn't realize it at the time. But in hindsight, that was the most successful tactic of McCain's entire campaign. It really sent a chill through the Obama campaign.

And they had after that what one of their advisers called a presumptuous watch. They wanted on the one hand, one of the big things they needed to do in the general election was put Barack Obama in settings that seemed presidential. On the other hand, they were so rattled by the celebrity attacks that they didn't want to seem presumptuous.

So they scaled down their events. Instead of having him for - at least for a while - in front of large, adoring crowds, they tried to do more town halls, where the audience is at the same level as Obama, so Obama's not up on some pedestal. And the communications people realized that that was a better thing to do because they were trying to respond to this attack that Obama was just a celebrity.

But the organizers were saying, hey, we need these big events. These big events are what we use to find new volunteers, to find new donors, to get information from these folks. And so by the end of the campaign, when they felt a little bit more confident that the celebrity thing had sort of died out, the organizers finally prevailed, and Obama went back to doing those big rallies. And that really helped them deliver voters in states where early voting was allowed. People would come to the events in the final weeks, and then the organizers would help them find the places where they could vote early, and they banked a huge number of votes by doing that.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza will be back in the second half of the show. His article, "Battle Plans: How Obama Won," is published in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

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GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Ryan Lizza. His article "Battle Plans: How Obama Won" is published in the current edition of The New Yorker. He's the magazine's Washington correspondent.

Lizza covered the Obama campaign for two years and spent the final two weeks interviewing the campaign strategists to create a history of the campaign. Part of his article is about how the campaign tried to win over what they described as up for grab voters, or UFGs.

Was there a lot of discussion within the Obama campaign about how to deal with race, how much to talk about it, how much not to talk about it, and how to talk about it when they did talk about it?

Mr. LIZZA: From what I was able to learn, they did not want race to be an issue at all. I think that they knew that there would be a quite a sizable number of voters who would vote for Barack Obama because he's black, and there would be some voters who would vote against him because he's black. But that those dynamics would play out on their own, and there wasn't a whole lot that they should publicly do on either front, and that talking about race was not going to be a winning way to win those UFGs. It was talking about the economy that was the key.

Remember, he gave that speech about race early on in the campaign. I think he wanted to do that one time, do it from his heart. You know, it stands up as one of the better speeches that a politician has given in the last few years, and I don't think that they really wanted to discuss it much after that.

They had a very sophisticated, massive operation to boost African-American turnouts, and like most Democratic campaigns, some of the messages and mail and radio ads that were played in predominantly African-American media were very different than some of the messages and ads that were played in the mainstream media. So, you know, they obviously targeted groups by demographic, just like every candidate does, but there was a sense in the campaign pretty early on that talking about race was not helpful to the campaign.

The other thing I will say that they realized from day one, the pollsters realized, is that a lot of this hype about these white working-class voters that didn't support Obama in the primaries and supported Hillary Clinton, that in the end, if they voted in the Democratic primary, that means they're a partisan Democrat, and in the end, they were going to come around for Obama.

So they were very clear very early on in their polling advice to Obama and his senior advisers in saying, don't be confused by the media discussion about the Democratic primary voting trends. These voting trends have little relationship to the general election. That's why they go through a lot of wasted conversations in the media about that effect, when inside the Obama campaign, they realized it was a bit of a non-issue.

GROSS: Now, you say that a lot of his campaign aides weren't sure that he'd be as good at governing as he was at campaigning, but that changed during the economic crisis. What convinced them?

Mr. LIZZA: What was described to me was basically nightly conference calls where they had to figure out the nitty-gritty of the bill in Congress. From a political perspective, there was some pressure on Obama to come out against that bill. Some of his political advisers said, look, you just step - take a step back. What's the message that plays better for Barack Obama, the anti-Washington politician being for the $700 billion Bush bailout bill or doing the sort of, you know, populous, I'm not going to give Bush another blank check thing.

He very well could have done that, and some of Obama's advisers were convinced that John McCain would do that because it just sort of made sense. It could have been the moment where John McCain separated himself from Bush. Now, they realized that McCain wasn't going to do it because they've got some intelligence from Capitol Hill, and they knew that the Republican Senate leadership would not allow McCain to come out against, that they needed his vote, and they needed him on board because they needed other Republicans to be for it, and if McCain had come out against it, then they might have lost some other Republican senators.

So, the Obama campaign was pretty confident, after a little bit of worry, that McCain was going to have to be for it. And according to his aides, he - you know, he laid down the law early on. I mean, look, this is somewhat self-serving, of course, but they told me that he laid down the law very early that, look, literally, the economy could collapse. I know we're in the middle of a presidential campaign here, but we have to be responsible. They say that he wanted to lay out broad principles, not be a sort of chief negotiator on Capitol Hill because he thought that the more presidential politics were involved with the bailout bill, the sort of worse it would be.

But to get back to your original question, you know, he was on the phone with Volker. He's on the phone with Paulson. He's calling his economic advisers for updates regularly. They presented him as someone sort of eager to soak up every last bit of information, to sort of have more conversations about the crisis and generally as sort of, you know, engaged in making decisions in what they described as a fairly impressive way.

You know, I want to give your listeners the caveat that this is - these are sort of interviews with his closest advisers. So, you know, obviously, some of this is a little self-serving.

GROSS: And also some - many of these advisers will be continuing to work with him.

Mr. LIZZA: Absolutely. Absolutely, but...

GROSS: So, yes. So, they're not going to be saying things that are highly critical of Barack Obama, even though the campaign is over.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. But I do - I will say, listen, in their - one thing that speaks to the - somewhat to the truth of this is that I think that the financial crisis was the moment that this race ended. The general public perception was McCain, you know - this phrase that we've talked about a lot during this period. McCain was erratic, and Obama was sort of steady and calm. And I think that that contrast in that crucial moment was very important to the outcome of this election, and the Obama folks, many of them argued that that was when they'd realized they probably were going to win.

GROSS: One more thing, there were times during the campaign when I think a lot of Obama supporters wanted him to, like, fight back harder...

Mr. LIZZA: Yes.

GROSS: Against the charges that the McCain campaign was making against him, whether it had to do with Bill Ayers or being a celebrity or some of the things Sarah Palin was saying or fighting back against Sarah Palin - saying that she is not qualified. She has no experience. You know, a lot of Democrats really wanted him to take the gloves off...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: And go after them and felt disappointed at times that he wasn't doing that.

Mr. LIZZA: Yup.

GROSS: So, what was the discussion within the campaign about whether to fight hard against those attacks or stick to the talking points that the Obama wanted?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, one of the things that I realized in reporting a story out is that Obama himself was very often to break on getting too negative. He was surrounded by some real, you know, hawks. You know, David Axelrod, that guy has run some tough campaigns in his life and has never been shy about going negative if he thought it would help his client. Robert Gibbs, who will now probably be the White House Press Secretary, you know, we in the press always knew that Gibbs was, you know, way more willing to take the gloves off than perhaps his candidate was.

And there's one story that didn't make it into the piece. I'll just share it quickly, Terry. During debate prep, Obama had all these zingers that he was - his advisers were throwing out at him, and he would sort of try them out, but he wouldn't deliver them quite with the harshness that some of his aides wanted him to.

And just in general, he believed that he had a certain political profile, and he wasn't going to let his campaign consultants do anything to damage that. At the end of the day, that obviously was a smart decision because at the end of the campaign, he was pretty much the guy he was when he started the campaign. And, you know, they said Barack likes to counterpunch a whole lot more than he likes to punch. So you take a shot at him, and he'll come back strong, but he's not often going to be the guy who takes the first shot.

GROSS: And that reminds me of something that one of the campaign aides told you about Obama, is that Obama said that he wanted to stay Barack Obama through the campaign. And at the end of the campaign, he was going to emerge as himself. He didn't want to ever be a caricature of himself.

Mr. LIZZA: You know, I've been writing about this guy - first met him in the spring of 2004. I've been writing about him for four years. I've interviewed him a bunch of times, and I always thought that was the central drama, at least the personal drama of his campaign, was whether he was going to be able to remain intact, as he told his advisers he was.

And, you know, I think the answer to that will probably lie in and how he governs over the six months, but from where I sit today, having covered this campaign for two years, you know, I think these presidential campaigns, they can destroy people. They can truly change who you are. And I don't think this campaign changed who Obama is, and that says quite a bit about him.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. LIZZA: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza's article "Battle Plans: How Obama Won" is published in the current edition of the New Yorker. He's the magazine's Washington correspondent.

Coming up, we take a look back at the McCain campaign and a look ahead to the future of the Republican Party with David Kirkpatrick, who writes about politics for the New York Times. This is Fresh Air.

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