Thursday, March 18, 2010

Book Review: The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lesson's of Barack Obama's Historic Victory by David Plouffe. NY: Viking, 2009

This is a war memoir. Plouffe is a general, and the enemy is Hillary Clinton. John McCain doesn't even make an appearance in the campaign narrative until chapter 11 of 17. This is a good read for anyone interested in learning how the presidential campaign was run and what happened in the inner circle.

In chapter one, Plouffe provides a history of his work with David Axelrod and gives an initial cast of characters. He also introduces four themes of the book. One is the impact of all encompassing campaign work upon his family and another is the emphasis the Obamas put on their own family. A third is the campaign's use of technology. The fourth is the "no drama Obama" work atmosphere in the campaign. It also establishes Sen. Clinton as the opposition. At the end of the chapter Obama makes a definite decision to run and asked Plouffe to be his campaign manager. The chapter ends with this:

We had a presidential campaign to get off the ground. And quickly. And a mountain named Hillary Clinton in our path that we had to find some way to scale, get around, or blow a hole through.

These themes continue in the second chapter. On the strictly political front the campaign sets up a Chicago headquarters and hires staff, including a salary cap for senior staff, and plans the formal announcement of Obama's campaign. A focus is getting ready for the Iowa caucuses. There are mentions of online information gathering and the importance of having low dollar fundraising events and merchandising. Another Hillary note is that her campaign broke an agreement that the three leading Democratic teams had made regarding debates.

One interesting aspect of reading a number of books on the same subject is seeing how the same event is interpreted or reported by each author. On page 57 Plouffe recounts a conversation on the campaign plane between Obama and staff that was also recounted in the Battle for America by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson. Plouffe continues to discuss the difficulty in trying to balance work and family; his dog dies while he is in Nevada. A significant part of the chapter explains and details the campaign’s emphasis on online connections and grassroots support and the way these forms of outreach relate to fundraising. The standards set in Iowa were maintained throughout the campaign:
[Paul] Tewes established a motto for our field staff philosophy: “Respect. Empower. Include.” We wanted to be the nicest, most attentive, and most creative staff in the field.

Plouffe is also honest about campaign mistakes, such as the D-Punjab remark about Sen. Clinton, which Obama was unaware of and angry about. The next chapter has several other criticisms about the Clinton campaign, for not using focus groups and for staying at a favorite hotel in Des Moines instead of traveling around the state. The Obama team’s Iowa strategy was:
These few people might seem inconsequential. But day in and day out, that’s how you build in Iowa: a few people at a time.

One example of behind the scenes strategy is Plouffe’s work to get all the other presidential campaigns not to campaign in Florida and Michigan, since they had moved their primaries up in defiance of DNC rules. This chapter also discusses pressure the campaign received from the African American community.

The fifth chapter, one of the longer ones in the book focuses on the Iowa caucuses. There is a brief description of the Philadelphia debate, but the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Iowa gets significantly more pages. Plouffe provides another look behind the scenes when recounting a meeting between Clinton and Obama on the tarmac of Washington National Airport. She apologized for a remark someone made about Obama; they agreed to be more careful in what their respective campaigns said. Since the Iowa caucuses were earlier than usual, not long after the holidays, campaign staff worked through without taking time off. Oprah campaigned for Obama, and John Kerry endorsed him. While Clinton’s campaign was unimpressed with the relative youth of many of the Obama supporters, they came through. As Plouffe recounts about the lesson they learned in Iowa:
Those lessons were many. A homegrown, committed grassroots organization was a mighty weapon when properly motivated and trusted to take initiative. Young voters would indeed turn out for Barack Obama. In Iowa, defying all history, voters under thirty turned out at the same rate as those over sixty-five; older voters traditionally had shown up in double the numbers.

The calendar was full after Iowa and chapter six concerns the New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina primaries. One prescient note from p. 148:
On our way [to lunch] we [Plouffe and Axelrod] we ran into Mark Halperin, reporter from Time, who asked if he could join us. He was working on a cover story about “how Obama did it,” and was hoping to get some time with the two of us. We were uneasy at the prospect of talking about how we won before it actually happened, but Halperin persisted. “Listen, you guy are going to win big today,” he said. “If a miracle happens and you don’t, I won’t use any of what you tell me.”

Halperin later wrote a book on the presidential election and there have been some questions about whether or not his sources knew they were on the record. One other interesting tidbit in this chapter is on pp. 158-9 and outlines an offer from John Edwards, that he would drop out and endorse Obama if Obama named Edwards the vice presidential candidate; however it was clear that Edwards intended to make the same offer to Clinton, though the Obama campaign was told he preferred Obama. Obama did not take the deal. As in Iowa the campaign depended primarily on grassroots support, and not on local “kingmakers.” Obama won the primary by 28 points showing again that the strategy was sound. Plouffe and others in the campaign kept a close watch on the delegate count and planned ahead accordingly.

Super Tuesday warrants its own chapter, though it is a comparatively slim one. Caroline and Ted Kennedy endorse Obama. Quite a bit of this chapter is on the wonkier aspects of the race, delegate count and the like. Plouffe again highlights their online organizing, pointing out that there was often an in-state organization in existence before the first official staffer was in place, and how useful that was when several primaries are happening at the same time. While Obama was campaigning in Delaware he took the time to meet be photographed with an assortment of Plouffe’s relatives. Plouffe mentions that during the 24 months he worked on the presidential campaign he saw his parents only twice and most of his siblings only once.

The next two chapters (“Ecstasy. Agony.” and “Agony. Ecstasy.”) continue the march of the primaries. Plouffe makes the point that no one else, not the New York Times, not even the
Clinton campaign (at least in Texas, which has a hybrid primary / caucus system), seem to have the same detailed grasp of the delegate count that the Obama campaign does. In among the details of how each state’s primary works and was handled, I found a few other interesting comments, such as Plouffe’s belief that the press was too easy on Clinton, saying her past had been written about extensively in the 1990’s and was no longer news. Plouffe continues to enforce two of his themes, one on the importance of grassroots:
We were able to make decisions without a lot of guff from our leading political supporters because they were not in the driver’s seat. We had a clear message and strategy to push forwards, and volunteers were our engine. Groups and political leaders who supported us were the caboose.

Another being the amount of time away from his family because of the demands of campaign work. This is further compounded when Plouffe finds out he and his wife are expecting their second child, due two days before the general election.

Among the “agony” aspects of these two chapters are the continuing problems caused by Rev. Wright, and Obama’s infamously poorly worded comments regarding bitterness, religion, and guns. Among the high points are Obama’s “race” speech at the National Constitution Center. The primary election finally ends in chapter 10. Plouffe notes that he considered Clinton a more formidable opponent than McCain. Those interested in the Obama campaign’s Internet strategy can find a good succinct description of it on p. 237. It is too lengthy to quote here; a similar summation of the importance of in person grassroots support is on the following page.

The book actually slows down a bit at this point. Chapter 11 is on getting ready for the general election and goes into details such as setting the budget, integrating some Clinton staff and working with Clinton herself. While Plouffe says the Clinton campaign seemed to expect the Obama campaign to take care of her debt, and that is was larger than they had thought, that Clinton herself campaigned for Obama and “campaigned her heart out.” Plouffe also mentioned that most of those who contributed to their campaign also volunteered in some fashion and how unusual that is; donors and volunteers are usually two separate groups with little overlap. Money, he says, is no substitute for committed volunteers. At this point in the campaign Plouffe himself wanted to step down for family reasons but his wife encourages him to stay. As he and Axelrod plan for the summer and fall he notes that “campaigns are not won in August but they can be lost there.”

Obama’s somewhat controversial overseas trip is the focus of chapter 12, “Innocents Abroad.” Readers get a firsthand view of the amount of planning such a trip requires. The next chapter details the selection of a vice presidential candidate. Plouffe says that Obama did seriously consider Clinton, but she was not among the three finalists – Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia. The campaign was able to bring all three (and some on a larger list) in for personal interviews without the press getting wind of it. Plouffe and Axelrod met with the three finalists. Their assessment of each is measured and Plouffe mentions Biden’s well-known propensity to be long-winded and make gaffes. The Democratic National Convention is also described in this chapter.

Sarah Palin, “Hurricane Sarah,” as Plouffe calls in her, and the beginnings of the general election are the focus of chapter 14. He is not, as one might expect, impressed with her experience or policy positions. The next chapter gets into the campaign proper, with an extensive discussion of their digital strategy, preparation for the first debate between McCain and Obama, and McCain’s plan to suspend his campaign during the banking crisis . McCain pushed Pres. Bush into holding a meeting with the two of them, Obama, and congressional leaders from both parties. The president’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, contacted the Obama campaign about it and made it clear they did not necessarily view it as a good idea but would go forward anyway.

The meeting itself is described in chapter 16 and did not go well for McCain who did not seem to have any solutions to offer. The first and second presidential debates are also detailed in this chapter, as is the vice presidential debate. Having post-debate burgers and beers became a campaign ritual for Plouffe and Axelrod, though the quality of the food varied. On the downside, the William Ayers controversy pops up and Obama has a brief interaction with a guy who is not a plumber and not named Joe. The chapter also discusses some of McCain’s campaign strategy, including suspending his campaign in Michigan, which Plouffe finds inexplicable.

The last chapter, “Endgame,” finishes out the general election. It also starts the Obama administration by discussing the initial process of filling White House positions. Plouffe felt that there was only one logical choice for Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, who eventually took the job. One good summation of Plouffe’s view of the election from p. 368:
One of the fundamental truths of the campaign’s story, one that will always stick with those of us who went through it, it that we threw long. We refused to be defined by past electoral and American history, by what we were told we couldn’t do. We tried to see things simply as they existed. We refused to accept the story that many thought would be written for us, and instead wrote our own chapter of history. The greatest treasure of the campaign was the chance to be my best self, and to share this with a band of brothers and sisters who were also their best selves, as we met and seized our moment.

The epilogue mentions the birth of his daughter, shortly after the election, and his return to private life, as well as a discussion of some of the issues involving the Obama administration in its early days, and more of his political philosophy.

Local notes: Plouffe is from Delaware and he and his dad are both Phillies fans. The Philadelphia debate is described on pp. 107-108. The Pennsylvania primary is mentioned in passing on pp. 204-205 and in detail on pp. 214-219. Plouffe said the Pennsylvania debate hurt the campaign with women in the suburbs. One interesting quote from p. 215 on the bowling photo-op with Sen. Bob Casey
”The bowling I don’t mind,” I told Obama that night. “But at least you could have taken off your tie. In the pictures you and Casey look like accountants going office-bowling.”
. Obama may have some pizzazz but Casey always looks like that. In any event, the Obama campaign always assumed Pennsylvania would be difficult if impossible to win in the primary but that campaigning here would help in the general. The final meeting with Biden before his selection as vp took place at his sister’s house in Pennsylvania. When David Axelrod and Patti Solis Doyle flew in to brief Biden and escort him to Springfield for the announcement, they flew in and out of West Chester instead of Wilmington. Plouffe booked Axelrod at a less than stellar hotel off I-95. Campaigning in Pennsylvania in the general election is mentioned on pages 347 and 367; at one point Plouffe says Obama was practically living in Pennsylvania.

Personal notes: Plouffe writes well and writes positively. There is no undercutting or trash talk. It is also clear that the Obama campaign was focused, did the detail work necessary to form a good strategy, and that people could speak their mind. Obama isn’t glorified and Plouffe felt comfortable writing about their disagreements, but his high opinion of Obama is clear. In the acknowledgements Plouffe writes that there were too many people involved in the campaign to mention each one. Having been involved a bit on the ground here in Pennsylvania and knowing how hard some of our local officials worked for Obama it was a little surprising not to hear of anyone but Sen. Casey and Gov. Rendell but there isn’t room in one book for everyone. I think it would be great if someone here in PA would write the story of this election from our state’s viewpoint. One pet peeve with Plouffe – he didn’t include an index and says that was so people would read it through and not skip. Some people read it through and then refer back to it repeatedly (not mentioning names here, but, say, bloggers who write detailed book reviews) over time. Those people would surely appreciate an index. Just sayin’.

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