Book review: The Audacity to Win, by David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager

By David Greenberg
Sunday, December 6, 2009


The Inside Story And Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory

By David Plouffe

Viking. 390 pp. $27.95

Political consultants -- the handlers, hucksters, hacks, flacks, ghosts and other assorted spinmeisters who form the modern campaign's supporting cast -- bring forth our conflicted feelings about politics. Half the time we deride them as oleaginous sharpies who deal in half-truths and double talk. The rest of the time we revere them for their shamanistic wisdom and award them platforms from which to dispense it: lucrative newspaper columns, prominent talk-show gigs, cushy chairs at Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations. And when they write memoirs, we know to expect shameless spin -- yet despite ourselves we hope for disclosures and insights into their magic.

The latest spin king to enjoy his moment in the media sun is David Plouffe, the skillful campaign manager of Barack Obama's 2008 juggernaut, whose account of that historic triumph arrives as "The Audacity to Win" -- a title forthrightly indebted to Obama's own campaign book, "The Audacity of Hope." As with most political memoirs, its publication is itself a work of no small audacity, a request for us to lay down $27.95 for what is essentially a bound sheaf of press releases. Plouffe's prose, alas, doesn't much sweeten the deal. It's filled with business-speak ("takeaway" used repeatedly as a noun, as in, "It certainly was not the chief takeaway from the debate"; gratuitous, macho-posturing profanity ("they picked Sarah goddamn Palin," "let's go win this [expletive] thing"); and a surfeit of baseball metaphors ("brushback pitch," "unforced errors," "[expletive] home run"). Still, many political junkies will read it to see whether it provides any tidbits that would have been too explosive to disclose in mid-campaign.

It does provide a few. It came as news to me, at least, to read Plouffe copping to (or should that be boasting of?) secretly conspiring with John Edwards's aides to corner Hillary Clinton into a fateful pledge to avoid Florida and Michigan -- states that scheduled early primaries in violation of Democratic party wishes and whose delegates she essentially had to forsake after winning big in those states. Plouffe also reveals how he successfully jawboned Adam Nagourney, the New York Times political writer, into altering how the paper counted primary delegates -- replacing a method favorable to Clinton with one favorable to Obama .

Short of these nuggets, though, it's not clear to this Obama supporter what anyone not still drunk on 2008-vintage Kool-Aid would find worthwhile here. In Plouffe's cloying characterization, Obama appears as unfailingly decent, humble and self-possessed. He laughs self-deprecatingly at down moments that send his staff into despair. Always there with the perfect pep talk, he comes off as resembling no one so much as that other high-minded, commonsensical leader of an unruly bunch, TV's Mike Brady. " 'We rode into town together, we'll ride out together, win or lose,' he often said," writes Plouffe of his boss. When the staff screws up, Obama forgives but distills and imparts lessons; what he loves most "is meeting and spending time with our Iowa precinct captains," to whom he is generous and loyal.

Besides the mythology of Obama, Plouffe also perpetuates the mythology of the campaign. He describes Obama as a long-shot from the get-go. But this wasn't really true. Polls notwithstanding -- and back in 2007 Plouffe himself wrote that early polls carry little significance -- in late 2006 Obama-mania was running so wild as to make the upcoming contest with Clinton look like a coin toss. Only her superior performance in 2007 propelled her to front-runner status, and even then, Plouffe concedes, her potential support faced firm limits. While it's fair to call Clinton the "establishment" candidate for the early rounds, the term was no longer apt by mid-January, once Obama won Iowa and nabbed gold-star endorsements from Ted Kennedy and others. Tellingly, Plouffe places no significance on the irony that more primary voters pulled the lever for Clinton than Obama, and that Obama needed those walking incarnations of the establishment -- the superdelegates -- to push him over the top.

Plouffe also hammers the talking point that Obama took the high road throughout the campaign, even as the book's details undermine such claims. Plouffe admits, for example, that he viewed Obama's very slogan -- "Change You Can Believe In" -- as a sneaky way to insinuate that Hillary was untrustworthy. Certainly, Obama appealed to many people by acknowledging the complexity of some issues. But Plouffe's insistence on his team's surpassing righteousness is belied by, among other things, the glee that enlivens his account when he describes trying to "cause huge problems [for Clinton] in Iowa with blue-collar voters" or polishing an attack video about John McCain and the corrupt banker Charles Keating. Of course, at these moments, in Plouffe's telling, Obama is at the ready with a very Brady admonition: "I must tell you, I think this is a mistake. Now, in the debate when I suggest that McCain is engaging in the same old attack politics, he'll have an easy comeback: I'm doing the same thing. I'm really disappointed in you two for not handling this the right way."

Surely it's time to retire the canard that Obama campaigned more nobly than his rivals. As in any presidential campaign, all the contenders fought hard; all went negative. Obama and Plouffe fought not cleaner but better, and went negative more deftly. Of course, when it's your own side, it rarely feels as though you're going negative. And at a certain point, insisting that you were more virtuous than the other guy stops even feeling like spin.

David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

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