Dan Pfeiffer, eager to get the president's message across

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.

Christine Iverson Gunderson, Thune's communications director in the 2002 race and now a full-time mom, recalls the "hand-to-hand combat" the two campaign operatives engaged in for more than a year:

"You would put something out there, and he would counter it, and you would say, 'I would have said it that way,' " Gunderson said, recalling the pain of a close loss for Thune (the margin was in the hundreds). "It's the grudging respect that you have for a very talented adversary. That's how I view him."

Gunderson and others -- including, privately, some reporters -- repeatedly use the word "tough" to describe Pfeiffer. He can be blunt, especially in e-mails. "What the f is this?" he wrote in a recent 7:16 a.m. e-mail, which claimed a story was incorrect and ended: "Pls fix."

But Pfeiffer is respected by most reporters in the mainstream media even though he often derides their brick-and-mortar businesses as a dying industry. He should know: The devastating loss in the Daschle race came in part at the hands of the new media -- and especially conservative bloggers -- who had an outsized mud-slinging impact that Pfeiffer didn't recognize until it was too late. "I don't blame them, but they were definitely a layer of the race," Pfeiffer said in the New Republic several years ago. Asked recently about the power of the bloggers, he said: "I promised not to let that happen again."

During the final weeks of the Daschle race, Pfeiffer would wake up at 2 a.m. to read the late-posted stories on Web sites. If they were bad for his candidate, he'd rarely go back to sleep. Daschle, who calls Pfeiffer an operative with "great political judgment," said the somber, post-Election Day party at a Harley-Davidson dealership was emotional, with plenty of hugs.

"The last week or so of that campaign tested everybody. But it tested him particularly. He was in the line of fire," Daschle said. "He was without a doubt the person to whom the media turned, and because it was so immensely intense, it took somebody with a calm and cool demeanor and a sense of his own abilities to get through that."

Purpose and focus

Born at the very end of Generation X, Pfeiffer is a creature of the youth culture that has been such a successful part of the political energy around President Obama. During the campaign, he insisted that the handful of people who were secretly planning an Obama European tour refer to it as a trip to Walley World, the fictional theme park in the 1983 film "National Lampoon's Vacation." Colleagues say he often cites cast members of obscure '80s and '90s movies and sitcoms.

He inhales Diet Coke, frequently munches on Starbursts and Skittles, and favors Miller Lite. Pfeiffer and Obama are among the biggest Jay-Z fans in the White House, according to several people familiar with Pfeiffer's iPod.

During the height of the 2006 congressional campaigns, he married Sarah Feinberg, who now works down the hall as Emanuel's top aide. As complicated as working in the same office might be, they have a mutual, single-minded purpose: Obama's success.

"He looks at his job as helping to forward the agenda of the president," said one person familiar with Pfeiffer's relationship with the president. "They talk about sports a lot. Talk about basketball a lot."

During the presidential campaign, Pfeiffer would wake up at 4 a.m., work for an hour, and play basketball from 5:45 to 7 a.m., when he would run the daily conference call from the lobby of the gym.

Now Pfeiffer rises before 5 a.m., in part to read The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which get delivered daily. As many as five times a week, Pfeiffer escapes the White House, and politics, for his other passion: basketball. He plays weekly in games at the Interior Department, Sidwell Friends School, Balance Sport and Fitness in Kalorama and the Sports Club/LA.

On one day earlier this month, friends say, he hobbled down the court with a twisted ankle, refusing to let the swelling keep him from playing the game and competing hard.

It is a recurring theme: Friends say Pfeiffer is intensely competitive in politics and life. But the people who work for him -- many of whom followed him to the White House from the campaign -- say he is considerate, too.

On primary nights, when young press aides were forced to work late, he would buy them cab rides home. And Fridays became "Milkshake Fridays" when Pfeiffer began buying them for his staff from the Potbelly sandwich joint in the campaign office's building.

"He's just the ideal colleague," said Anita Dunn, the outgoing communications director, whom Pfeiffer will replace.

Like others, Dunn -- who is also a Starburst fan and a mentor of sorts -- describes Pfeiffer as calm under pressure and keenly aware of how to solve a problem quickly during a crisis.

It's a skill that was on display in 2006 as he headed from Washington to West Virginia for his wedding to Feinberg. Having arrived at Reagan National Airport for his flight, he discovered that he was booked on a plane departing from Dulles, far away in Virginia.

"Um, I think I made a mistake," he told his bride-to-be calmly in a phone conversation. "But I want you to know I've already corrected it. It's gonna be fine."

Political researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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