Friday night, my wife and I attended an event at the headquarters branch of the St. Louis County Library, featuring David Plouffe, the manager of Obama’s campaign for the White House. Plouffe was in town for the second to last stop of a tour promoting his book, The Audacity to Win, released earlier this month.
Of course, by the time Plouffe reached our area, much of the public’s attention had shifted to another author and her book, prompting a not-unexpected series of quips and jokes at Friday’s event. But Plouffe didn’t need those shots at the former VP candidate to thoroughly captivate a generally friendly, capacity crowd during 40-or-so minutes of remarks and nearly that much time devoted to Q&A.
Introduced by veteran St. Louis journalist Don Marsh, Plouffe launched into a commanding, noteless summary of the Obama campaign’s keys to success — none of which should be a surprise to those who study presidential politics and who followed the Obama campaign closely, as it unfolded:
1. A disciplined focus on new, first-time voters: identifying them, helping them get registered, motivating them to turn out to vote — starting with the Iowa caucus, all the way through “Super Tuesday” and the general election
2. Motivating, empowering, and equipping grassroots donors and volunteers, whose work ethic and energy often buoyed the spirits of the paid campaign staff — including Plouffe, David Axelrod, and even Obama
3. Understanding and working the electoral college math, i.e., defending the states Sen. Kerry had won in 2004, while concentrating incremental resources (including the candidates’ time) in several other, carefully selected states (Indiana, Virginia, etc.) — which they believed they could win (due to demographic shifts, etc.) to achieve the 270-vote threshold
4. The candidate himself; in particular, his infectious, steady-as-we-go demeanor.
Potentially more intriguing than Plouffe’s talk were his responses to audience questions.
And yes, I was one of the questioners, along these lines: As the primaries dragged on, Clinton’s campaign was marred by infighting and backstabbing, but we rarely if ever saw similar dissension among the ranks of Obama’s campaign staff. Acknowledging that Obama deserved some of the credit for this distinction, there still had to be moments when Plouffe, Axelrod, and others disagreed (perhaps vehemently) on campaign strategy and/or tactics. How did they resolve their moments of conflict, so that — consistent with the candidate’s wishes — their internal disputes remained just that: internal, out of the public eye?
Plouffe’s answer started with the admission that Obama’s team had deliberately followed an organizing principle used in one (perhaps both) of former President Bush’s presidential campaigns — namely, the decision to limit the inner circle to a handful of people who knew each other and had built up a considerable level of familiarity and mutual trust, before the campaign ever started. That, he said, as much as anything, helped them maintain cohesion and fostered an environment where arguments could be aired, debated, and left behind.
Plouffe also acknowledged that there was one moment during the campaign when he and Axelrod were yelling at each other over speaker-phone, but neither could now remember what the argument was about. Preparing to write his book, Plouffe asked other campaign staffers if they remembered. They didn’t — although some recalled it as the worst moment of their campaign experience, as if their parents were yelling at each other.
Another questioner asked if the campaign, and now the administration, had ever considered combating terrorism with a purely peaceful approach, reminiscent of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Plouffe answered quickly and firmly: “No.” We face real and enduring threats from violent people, he said, to whom we must respond with force. But, he added, the President and his advisors continue to believe that force alone will not win the fight; that exceptional diplomatic efforts must have a prominent place in the strategic mix.
Yet another questioner– who identified herself as a progressive, lesbian, and military veteran — challenged Plouffe at two points during the event; once during the Q&A portion and once in the book-signing line. Generally, she wanted to know why Obama wasn’t doing more for his progressive base, including repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
During the Q&A portion, Plouffe responded …
First, with a reminder that the President has acted in a progressive vein on a number of issues, from his support of embryonic stem-cell research, to his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to his push for health care reform …
And second, with a plea for patience, given the scope of many other pressing matters requiring the President’s attention, from the economy to Afghanistan.
Later, in the book signing line — with his challenger at the table, immediately in front of my wife and me — the distractions of the moment limited Plouffe to a smile, a nod, and something muttered, perhaps a “thank you,” although we don’t think he was trying to be dismissive. In fact, my wife remarked, as we left the library, that Plouffe seemed genuinely troubled that this woman was upset with the President and that he could not immediately offer an answer that would satisfy her.