Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer has a message to deliver

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dan Pfeiffer regularly trolls the West Wing, his list of to-do items -- a couple dozen long -- on a stiff White House-embossed index card in his pocket. At the end of every day, there's always a handful that he can't quite cross off.

The soon-to-be White House communications director is never in one place for long. At one moment, he's feet up on someone else's desk in the press aides' pen, hands clasped behind his head. Then, he's leaning against a wall in David Axelrod's office down the hall from the Oval Office. Then, quickly back to a meeting with press secretary Robert Gibbs, his index card whipped out once more.

If Axelrod is the protector of Obama's message, and Gibbs is in charge of delivering it, Pfeiffer is the presidential operative tasked with making sure that someone is writing or broadcasting or blogging about it. All three jobs overlap, but after three years in Obama's orbit, they have it all worked out.

At 33, Pfeiffer is already a veteran of a decade of high-pressure campaigns and has spent the past 10 months as deputy communications director, managing the message for the president's most challenging priorities: health-care reform, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Supreme Court nomination process. It is a measure of the president's faith in him that, having been passed over twice, he will take on the top job next month.

Not everything has gone well. The cocky optimism that Pfeiffer once exuded about the health-care effort faded as the opposition intensified and timetables collapsed. Vetting screw-ups marred the administration's early months, creating crises that required attention. And it has fallen to Pfeiffer to figure out how to explain away the difficulty in shutting the Guantanamo facility, a failure that last week forced the ouster of Obama's chief counsel.

But Pfeiffer is entirely and completely unflappable, according to just about everyone in the White House. In the "no-drama" Obama world, Pfeiffer is more even-tempered than the rest, even in the face of crisis.

"Calm as can be," marveled former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who added Pfeiffer to the inner circle around Obama early in 2007. "Very much like the president in that regard. Very much like, 'Okay, we've got to deal with it.' You gotta do the best you can to control what you can control. And know that there will be lots of days where events will just intrude."

One of those days for the administration came in August, when angry town-hall meetings and allegations about government "death panels" had knocked the White House completely off its health-care message. Health reform czar Nancy-Ann DeParle went looking for someone to calm her anxiety.

Axelrod and Gibbs were on vacation. So was chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. The president was in Martha's Vineyard. She found Pfeiffer.

"I was panicking a little bit and he offered a calm, coolheaded, calculated assessment of here's where we are," she recalled. "The few times he does have his hair on fire, that's when I know I should be worried."

'In the line of fire'

It is Pfeiffer's job to know what will appeal to the frenetic White House press corps; how to get a growing cadre of unruly liberal bloggers to amplify the president's words; when to fire off a snippy e-mail after a negative story; and how to spin reporters ahead of deadline, while maintaining his reputation for a blunt approach.

They are skills he honed early, and in the crucible of the toughest political campaigns. At 24, he was working for Al Gore. At 26, he was communications director in the successful effort to reelect South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson over Republican John Thune. Two years later, Pfeiffer fought against Thune again, this time in the losing bid to reelect top Democrat Tom Daschle.

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