For a top Obama adviser, a new strategy and old doubts

September 27, 2011

They liked what they saw.

In early September, the morning after demanding passage of a jobs bill before a joint session of Congress, President Obama revved up the crowd in a packed University of Richmond gym as three of his top advisers watched from the wings. When the president responded to shouts of “We love you, Obama” with “Love you back,” senior adviser Valerie Jarrett dropped her head back in delight. The shoulders of press secretary Jay Carney heaved as he clapped.

And David Plouffe, the president’s unflappable chief strategist, seemed swept up in the moment.

As the president’s speech went on, Jarrett’s attention drifted to her BlackBerry and Carney rested against the wall. But Plouffe stepped closer to the stage. He folded his arms, pursed his lips and stroked his chin, observing Obama like a gymnastics coach monitoring the recalibrated routine of his star performer.

Often considered a cold, calm cyborgian number-cruncher who reflects his cold, calm cyborgian boss, Plouffe, 44, is in fact deeply passionate man, enamored with the success of the 2008 campaign that cast Obama as a transformational candidate who would change Washington from above. It was an insurgent strategy that bested Hillary Clinton, but it has failed Obama as an incumbent. While Plouffe appears to be pushing Obama toward a more partisan approach, doubts linger over whether he has sufficiently gotten over the last election to win the next one.

“Everybody wants to repeat what’s been most successful for them,” said Mark Penn, who, as Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist in 2008, was criticized for trying to repeat his successful strategy for Bill Clinton in 1996. “But I do think there is a fundamental difference between a Democratic primary race and a reelection for president, because getting reelected is fundamentally about the reality of the situation and his performance in the job.”

* * *

Since joining the White House in January, Plouffe has acted as the chief choreographer of the president's performance — advocating a strategy that struck Obama’s Democratic base as either the most protracted rope-a-dope routine in political history or a monumental exhibition of masochism.

“Whoever is advising him to do these things should be fired tomorrow,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont.

“At times,” said moderate Democrat Mark R. Warner (Va.), “you’ve got to put a marker down.”

The outsider strategy that drew strength from enemy attacks in 2008 and that attracted protection from outraged liberals has made the nation’s leader look powerless. His former defenders and donors have taken to bemoaning an anemic president who whined about Washington instead of running it, who capitulated to Republicans instead of crushing them, who sacrificed his party to protect his own above-politics brand.

Plouffe will not discuss his decision making. After a long-pursued request for an interview and conversations with White House officials about the prospect of talking with him, the strategist declined to comment for this article.


White House senior adviser David Plouffe listens to President Obama during a July news conference on the budget. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

He is a man who practices the message discipline he preaches. His interests outside of politics read like a list of pursuits generated in a computer lab — or press office — for single-minded operatives. He’s a distance runner! He visits the park with his wife and kids! He roots for the Phillies! And — showing a frisson of human frailty — he played beer pong in college.

The White House considers his lack of color a testament to his analytical focus, a reputation that Plouffe himself embraced and cashed in on by PowerPointing his way from U.S. marketing conventions to Azerbaijan on the lucrative speaking circuit. But this election will depend more on moving poll numbers than on scrutinizing them.

“The president is very confident in his team,” Plouffe said on CNN on Sunday when asked whether heads should roll in the White House. “And the direction we’ve laid out here.”

Plouffe’s defenders inside the White House argue that until recently he calculated that aggression against Republicans would hurt the economy and the president’s political standing with independents. Fighting might make liberal groups feel good, White House officials said privately, but it isn’t reasonable.

And Barack Obama is a reasonable man.

There is also a less-sanctioned sense within the White House that Plouffe’s above-the-fray path was safe for the naturally cautious president. The problem, according to people in and close to the administration, was the lack of a strong voice to counter Plouffe, who had absorbed many of the roles formerly played by Obama’s hands-on-everything manager, Rahm Emanuel.

But now, the famously panic-proof strategist appears to have answered the appeals of his party and finally set the president on a more partisan — and unPlouffian — course.

In Richmond, Obama tweaked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in his home district. Early last week, he proposed a tax on millionaires and accused House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) of having “walked away from a balanced package.” On Thursday, he stood on an aging bridge that connected the home states of Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and accused them both of blocking job creation. Over the weekend, he mocked GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry as “a governor whose state is on fire, denying climate change.”

Many Democrats are emboldened by the new aggression, but they remain wary that Obama, whose pique has ebbed and flowed in the past, is only temporarily diverging from Plouffe’s old path.

Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), who attributed his own unlikely 2000 congressional victory in part to Plouffe, said, “I hope for his sake and all our sakes that he will move the way he has been moving.”

Plouffe’s defenders in the White House argue that he has been moving this way all along and that the pursuit of compromises has removed the paralyzing threat of default and put the president on firmer ground: Yes, the public’s discontent with Washington wounded the president, but it hurt Congress more. And now, Republicans will have to compromise on Democratic terms, as happened in this week’s avoidance of a government shutdown. Republicans, the thinking goes, will help the president to help themselves.

“Plouffe sees the whole game,” said Stephanie Cutter, Plouffe’s deputy, who is leaving the White House to work on the 2012 campaign. “Not just the individual plays.”

To the wider Democratic universe, this strategy constituted a year of magical thinking.

“It’s certainly obvious Republicans have established a strategy of ruining the country to rule the country,” said Bob Shrum, the chief Democratic strategist for Al Gore and later John Kerry. He said that Obama needed to convince voters that he was a warrior for ordinary people.

For Plouffe that means recasting Obama, the reasonable man, as a reasonably angry man.

Discplined to a fault?

Plouffe has never lacked the stomach for a political knife fight. He dropped out of college to get into political combat, and he excelled. Obama’s victory created a folklore about his ability to lay out a plan and stick to it, but his résumé is rife with examples in which his disciplined strategy ended in defeat.

In 1994, he served as campaign manager for Democrat Charles M. Oberly’s U.S. Senate bid in Delaware. Oberly thought he had a good shot with Plouffe and media maven David Axelrod until a conservative wave swept the country. Asked whether Plouffe counseled a change in strategy, Oberly said, “We maintained a steady course.”

And in 1997, Plouffe signed up as deputy chief of staff to Democratic minority leader Dick Gephardt — his highest government position until joining the Obama White House — to help win back the House. Democrats fell short, but when Gephardt ran for president in 2004, he called on Plouffe to run a campaign that ultimately foundered over criticism of Gephardt’s support of the war in Iraq.

“We all saw it coming and we all worried about it from the beginning,” Gephardt said. When asked if Plouffe advocated a change of course, he said, “There are things in politics that are out of your control. They are just bigger than anything else.”

It is ludicrous to blame Plouffe for getting swept away by political tsunamis. But Democratic critics argue that it is equally ludicrous for the author of a book titled “The Audacity to Win,” a man whom Obama proclaimed the “hero” of American history’s “best political campaign,” to adhere slavishly to his 2008 victory’s tactics when the wave has washed away.

“He is not a sentimentalist and he is not bound to any formula,” David Axelrod, Plouffe’s predecessor, countered in an interview. “He deals with what is in front of him.”

The cost of playing ball

And what was in front of Plouffe when he joined the White House was not good: Resurgent Republicans had taken the House with the stated intention of dismantling the Obama agenda.

Plouffe’s choice — to work with them instead of against them — defined the following nine months but also indicated his conviction that the path to 2012 still ran through 2008.

In the brinkmanship with Republicans over government funding, Plouffe argued that a shutdown could hurt the economy and risk making Obama seem unreasonable in the eyes of independent voters. The goal, several administration officials said, was to make the Republicans more amenable to playing ball on the looming debt-ceiling issue.

But that view put Plouffe at odds with some colleagues, including Vice President Biden, who felt that a government shutdown could demonstrate how radical Republicans had become. (The vice president’s office declined to comment.)

While Plouffe’s defenders argue that the eventual budget deal did just that — and saved key programs — Democratic leaders complained that the president’s strategist seemed to favor talking to Republicans over listening to his own party.

In the midst of the budget negotiations, Plouffe called his friend Ken Mehlman, the former campaign manager for George W. Bush, to give him a heads-up about the administration’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and the two fell into talks about potential areas of compromise.

“What’s unique about David,” Mehlman said, “is his ability to advance a cause in which he believes by making it about the cause and not himself.”

But the Republicans never did come along. And if the eventual collapse of the debt deal left Plouffe’s principal cause, candidate Obama, looking reasonable and sympathetic, it also diminished him as a leader. Plouffe’s course made Obama look weak and in over his head.

Back to the fight

Since Richmond, that course has changed.

“He’s having to get aggressive in what he needs to do to serve America,” said Bill Mullins, 54, an independent voter and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as he sat on the Richmond gym floor. “He’s been steamrolled by the other side. I think it took him a while to get a handle on that.”

A few minutes later, the president raced up to the stage, and Plouffe, trying to get with his new program, stepped up to watch.

When Obama said, “Let’s pass this jobs bill right away,” Plouffe applauded.

When Obama asked whether middle-class tax cuts were preferable to tax loopholes for corporations, Plouffe mouthed “yes.”

And when Obama started taking shots at “your congressman,” Cantor, Plouffe clenched his jaw before loosening up and laughing as the president hit the Republicans. Finally.

“I know folks think they have used up benefit of the doubt, but I’m an eternal optimist,” the president said. “Eventually, after they have exhausted all the options, folks will do the right thing.”

After the speech, as Obama shook hands, a group of college Democrats spotted the senior adviser hamming it up.

“Hey,” one of the groupies shouted. “That’s Plouffe!”

Plouffe pointed back and grinned. His acrobat had landed a new twist.

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