As one of Barack Obama’s chief political strategists, David Plouffe mixed grassroots organizing and Internet campaigning to help win two presidential elections. Now Uber, the controversial online transportation company, has tapped Plouffe to deploy these same skills in what has rapidly become one of the most prominent political fights to emerge out of Silicon Valley.
Uber announced Tuesday that Plouffe will join the company as a senior vice president of policy and strategy as it spars all over the world with powerful taxi interests — and their political allies — who argue that Uber puts the public at risk and operates often illegally.
The decision to hire Plouffe underscores how the company is learning it needs more firepower behind its efforts to conquer local transportation markets. Uber offers inexpensive alternative services, including one that turns anyone with a private car and a smartphone into an amateur chauffeur. But it has also hinted at broader ambitions in shaping the movement of people and packages around cities.
Uber chief Travis Kalanick, who has relished his role as an industry provocateur, said on Tuesday he had found a “brilliant general” who would have the political expertise that a company full of “techies” lacks in taking on the taxi business.
“In their efforts to protect themselves from competition, they’ve started a political campaign that we initially didn’t really realize we were in,” he said. “We do now and I want to make sure we have the resources and the talent, and really David is the leader of that campaign to make sure our story is told and the right outcomes happen.”
The Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, which has been Uber’s primary lobbying foe at the national level, countered that the company wouldn’t need an “expensive political operative” if it simply adhered to laws limiting who can transport passengers for hire.
“By following the rules and meeting local public safety requirements like the rest of us,” the group’s chief executive, Alfred LaGasse, said in a statement, “they wouldn’t need a ‘political campaign’ in the first place.”
Plouffe, who left the White House at the beginning of Obama’s second term, recently dismissed rumors he could become chief of staff for the final two years.
Now, by joining one of the hottest technology companies in the country, Plouffe, 47, stands to be perhaps the biggest financial winner among Obama alumni. Earlier this summer, the investing world was shocked when venture capitalists valued Uber at $18.2 billion. An eventual initial public offering would be a windfall for the firm’s senior executives.
The Obama campaign’s connection with the tech community played a role in Plouffe’s decision to join Uber. Kalanick and Plouffe were connected through Jim Messina, the 2012 campaign manager, who met the Uber chief through the Tech for Obama steering committee.
On Tuesday, Plouffe gave a preview of the plan he might carry out at Uber.
“To the extent that there are barriers, then we have to have a strategy to eliminate those barriers,” Plouffe said. “So much of that is making sure people understand what Uber is all about. What’s the motivation of those who are trying to protect the status quo? Where’s that coming from?”
Uber is the latest Silicon Valley heavyweight to discover that tech disruption requires overcoming political and regulatory barriers. The past 20 years have been littered with examples of companies, from Microsoft to Apple to Facebook, learning, often late, that they must play in politics to continue to grow.
Uber, however, faces some unusually complex policy problems. Unlike other Internet startups that operate solely in cyberspace, Uber’s challenges exist in the taxi-line at airports, along busy downtown streets and on highways.
While tech companies have had to fight over privacy laws and patent rules in Washington, Uber faces a dizzying array of local laws developed by city councils, taxicab commissions and state governments. What’s more, the level of consumer support for Uber — and the intensity of the opposition — varies greatly.
Regulators increasingly have to decide who can provide transportation to the public, how drivers’ cars should be inspected, and what levels of insurance they should carry. Officials also have to weigh whether to allow an upstart to upend a long-running business model that has provided jobs and income to many communities.
This highly fragmented environment is where Plouffe, who is credited with shaping Obama’s highly successful 2008 fifty-state ground game, will be especially valuable, people close to him say.
“He knows how to think about message,” says David Axelrod, a longtime colleague who worked on Obama’s campaigns with Plouffe. Uber is “an insurgent facing a lot of obstacles in various markets — not just in this country but around the world — and knowing how to make the case for their product is something he will do very well.”
Plouffe, who will move his family to California next year, worked for decades as a campaign strategist and legislative aide. He worked for House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and helped run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
As campaign manager, Plouffe was credited with a strategy that had Obama fight aggressively in the Democratic presidential contest for Iowa, an early victory that propelled his campaign. He also helped transform how the campaign used the Internet and social media to attract support, especially from the young voters who also make up Uber’s core demographic.
After the 2008 campaign, Plouffe stayed out of the White House for the first two years, instead giving high-priced speeches, a practice that drew criticism from those who faulted him for cashing in on his campaign experience.
In 2011, Plouffe joined the White House as a senior adviser to Obama. Arriving after the devastating 2010 mid-term elections, and with an eye to Obama’s re-election, he first pushed the president to try to strike a grand bargain with newly empowered Republicans over the budget.
The strategy was geared in part toward winning over independent voters, but it rankled liberals, who saw Obama turning his back on progressive values. When the talks with Republicans collapsed, the White House adopted a far more liberal bend, confronting the GOP rather than appeasing it, a strategy that helped cement the president’s re-election.
Plouffe left the White House at the beginning of last year, making speeches and serving as a political analyst on television. He agreed to serve on the board establishing Obama’s presidential library.
Now he is looking to apply the lessons of his time in politics to a new campaign — one that opponents say will destroy the livelihoods of drivers across the country, but whose supporters say represents technological change that could revolutionize transportation.
“When he believes very deeply in something,” Messina said, “he goes all the way in -- like he [did] in 2007 with the president.”