Unshackled from the day-to-day machinations of governing, and unburdened by the partisan intensity of official Washington, the Chicago team is energized by the clarity of its purpose: getting Obama reelected. That means focusing not on Washington, but on laying the campaign groundwork in the key battleground states that will decide the contest.
That also means working on issues, large and small, in corners of the country far removed from Washington: aiding a state Senate race in eastern Iowa; helping to coordinate a volunteer effort to elect a Democratic mayor in Tucson; recruiting a nationwide stable of lawyers in preparation for possible lawsuits and voter-registration fights from Florida to Wisconsin.
In contrast to the Republican primary campaign, which is dominating the media’s attention, the Obama reelection effort is relatively under the radar. Staff members at the Chicago headquarters seem almost oblivious to the inside-the-Beltway issues consuming the presidency.
“Washington is on pins and needles about the day-to-day congressional negotiations,” campaign manager Jim Messina said recently, hundreds of miles away from the capital, where lawmakers were still mired in talks about the national debt.
Gesturing toward a 50,000-square-foot office with more than 100 young operatives hunched over laptops, Messina said: “I bet you there’s not two people in that room who are following that.”
The decision to move to Chicago was reflexive for the Obama crew, which has always maintained a high degree of nostalgia about the 2008 operation there. But it has not been without problems. It has meant moving numerous aides halfway across the country — and not even to a swing state — only to fly them back to Washington every week or two for strategy meetings.
One obvious risk is that being in Chicago could make it tempting to try to rerun the 2008 insurgency playbook now, when Obama is a monumental figure.
And beyond the sentimental value, Chicago seems to offer little in the way of political advantages. The phrase “Chicago politics” carries connotations of a kind of insider dealing that the president would want to avoid in a year of anti-incumbency. Some Democratic operatives are skeptical about the political wisdom of the move to the city.
But there are less obvious upsides, aides say. They have time to follow minute electoral developments nationwide that could be important to the outcome next year. In Florida, for example, Republican officials have instituted new rules to curb early voting and restrict how groups register voters. Obama officials have begun to respond, in part with a huge volunteer education drive about the requirements.