By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; A08
David Plouffe, the political strategist who managed Barack Obama's presidential campaign, is taking on an expanded role as an outside adviser to the White House, a move that comes amid legislative and electoral setbacks for the president and his party.
Administration officials cast the move as a natural stepping-up of Plouffe's involvement after a hiatus in which he wrote a memoir about his experiences on the campaign. But the timing of his return -- less than a week after a stunning loss in Massachusetts cost Democrats their filibuster-proof Senate majority -- signaled an important shift as the party braces for what are expected to be difficult midterm elections.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer acknowledged that the administration is "operating in a challenging political environment," and that the addition of Plouffe is aimed at putting "all the best players on the field."
Plouffe will become the administration's lead political liaison operating outside the White House, with responsibility for coordinating efforts on House, Senate and gubernatorial races. He will oversee a stepped-up polling operation that will aim to detect problems early -- unlike in Massachusetts, where Democrats were caught off-guard by Republican Scott Brown's surging candidacy.
Aides said the hope is that the detail-oriented management style Plouffe displayed throughout the 2008 campaign -- in which he realized early that the primary contest could become a protracted fight for delegates -- and his knowledge of down-ballot races as a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will help a White House that has struggled to sustain the political momentum of Obama's 2008 campaign.
Since Obama's victory, Democrats have lost three major contests: gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009 and, on Tuesday, the special election that was seen a month ago as a sure thing for the party. In all three races, independents, a group that strongly supported Obama, fled from the party.
In the Massachusetts special senatorial election, Brown won independents over state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) by a 2 to 1 margin, according to a Washington Post poll conducted in partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. It was a huge reversal from the 2008 presidential election, when Obama carried independents in Massachusetts by 17 points over Republican John McCain.
One senior Democratic congressional aide described the move by Plouffe as necessary to heal the White House political department's tarnished image.
"After losses in Virginia, New Jersey, and the stunning loss in Massachusetts, there is little confidence in the White House political operation," said the source, who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly. "Plouffe's return shows that they are serious about turning it around."
Plouffe's other main task, according to those familiar with his mandate, is to restore a level of long-term message planning to a White House that has struggled to adjust to the pace of governing, and that has seemed to be too frequently forced off-message by events.
Plouffe will work intermittently out of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters. He will be tasked with overseeing and coordinating the political operations of the campaign committees, and with ensuring that political priorities are set and adhered to over time.
Plouffe's counterparts inside the White House will continue to be Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and political director Patrick Gaspard, the twin-headed political operation that has been in place since Obama took over as president.
After managing Obama's successful primary and general election races, Plouffe chose not to go into the White House, unlike many of his campaign colleagues. He returned to the private sector and focused on writing his memoir, called "The Audacity to Win." The book was released in November.
Plouffe remained involved with Organizing for America, the operation formed after Obama's victory to maintain the huge grass-roots e-mail and donor base built during the campaign. While OFA officials tout it as a success story, there is increasing skepticism within the party about whether it has fulfilled its mission of bringing a grass-roots army to bear on the president's top priorities.
Plouffe has also remained in touch with Obama and his political team. "The president talks fairly regularly with David," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week. "I know that it is somebody whose advice and counsel he both seeks regularly and believes David is an exceptionally smart adviser who understands the type of anger and frustration that he's seen."