The Washington Post

How messy was the Obama reelect campaign? Messier than you thought.

David Axelrod, a chief strategist for the Obama campaign, photographed in Chicago Headquarters April 25, 2008 (John Gress/For The Washington Post) David Axelrod (John Gress/For The Washington Post)

While President Obama and his top aides were pretty adept at containing leaks from their 2012 campaign, some of the details have begun to emerge now that political reporters are publishing books about the election. A great case in point is "The Message: The Reselling of President Obama," by Richard Wolffe, the executive editor of Since we read so you don't have to, here are some of the choicest bits:

1. Top advisers such as Obama senior strategist David Axelrod competed openly with deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter for influence. Cutter's close ties to first lady Michelle Obama and her position as the team's only senior woman gave her prominence, but her willingness to talk tough-including a suggestion that Mitt Romney could have committed a felony in an SEC filing--made others uncomfortable.

In one of many feuds, Axelrod insisted on going to a Chicago Bulls game the night of the Iowa caucuses despite Cutter's request that he stay out of the public limelight. "Her controlling desires meant little to him," Wolffe wrote. "He had the chance to see the Bulls and Derrick Rose at a sellout game, where he could also stuff his face with a smoked turkey sandwich and sweet potato fries."

At one point campaign manager Jim Messina gathered a small group together at a White Sox baseball game, where he, Axelrod and two other senior campaign aides, Larry Grisolano and David Plouffe discussed how to fire Cutter. “But everybody was too scared to tell her. And then Axe saved her,” a senior campaign aide told Wolffe. “Of all the people who spent years complaining behind closed doors, no one will actually ever deliver the news to the person they’re complaining about. That will just never happen. They’ll completely avoid it. They made a decision and just didn’t have the balls to carry it out.”  

2.Messina had to fight for control of the operation as both Axelrod and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs challenged his authority. The infighting was especially bad with Axelrod, who hired a lawyer to negotiate his contract with the campaign and sought a percentage of its ad buys.

"Axelrod made it clear that he felt Messina was not up to the job of campaign manager. He liked to compare the relationship between Plouffe and Messina to the two strongmen running the Kremlin. Plouffe was President Vladimir Putin, the man really in charge, while Messina was his henchman and prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev," Wolffe wrote. "Axe respected Plouffe highly, but he did not believe that Messina was an honest broker. He felt that Plouffe had no sense of the day-to-day business in Chicago, while Messina was desperately overcompensating for his insecurity and lack of control."

3. In the West Wing itself, chief of staff Bill Daley was "a walking disaster" whose reign was "chaotic," in the words of one campaign aide.

While everyone knew the Daley didn't mesh well with longtime Obama staffers and failed to run a smooth operation--just look at his short tenure and all the praise aides heap upon Denis McDonough--the book spells out how he tried to do an end-run around many of his colleagues. "Daley had been running several back channels to the GOP leadership on the debt ceiling and had failed to loop in the White House communications team."

4. When Obama conducted an outreach effort to the left, he had to put up with a tirade from Ed Schultz and had to hunt for a phone number to New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal. At one point Obama was going to call the Times switchboard, but senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer blocked his assistant Anita Decker from doing that because "If you call the main line, they are going to announce on the PA system that the president is on the phone for Andy Rosenthal. We can't do that."

5. Obama's aides were horrified by a radio ad aimed at African American votes that featured the refrain "We've got yo' back!" The ad, done by the St. Louis, Mo. firm Fuse Advertising, had a funk music background and was quickly killed because it failed to spell out the Web site,, and the Romney campaign bought up the domain name "It was like something out of Soul Train from the 1970s," said one senior Obama aide. "it was so bad. The worst was that it started out with the president saying, 'I'm Barack Obama and I approved this message.' The jingle wasn't even your back but yo' back."


Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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