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Uber hires former Obama adviser David Plouffe to wage a war on taxis

Uber's self-described campaign against "Big Taxi" took a major turn on Tuesday when it announced that it's hired former Obama adviser David Plouffe as its senior vice president for policy and strategy.

Plouffe, the Democratic strategist who helped elect President Obama to the White House in 2008, is the latest sign that Uber's ambitions are grand, perhaps no less than remaking the nature of transportation in the United States. And it now needs to ramp up its political muscle as it takes on growing legislative and regulatory battles around the country.

"Uber has the chance to be a once in a decade if not a once in a generation company," said Plouffe in a blog post on Uber's Web site. "Of course, that poses a threat to some, and I’ve watched as the taxi industry cartel has tried to stand in the way of technology and big change."

Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick told reporters Tuesday that the hiring marked "a big day for Uber" that had been six months in the making.

That the company has had a difficult time convincing regulators to support the company is no secret. For instance, it and a rival, Lyft, finally reached an agreement with Virginia officials this month after a protracted regulatory struggle led to a cease-and-desist letter from the state seeking to ban the companies from operating there.

State lawmakers in Illinois have approved a measure that would apply stricter limitations on ridesharing companies. Uber has launched a petition directed at Gov. Pat Quinn to stop the measure, but it is still short of its 70,000-signature goal.

Plouffe said Tuesday that taking control of the company's policy arm does not mean he will be micromanaging fights over regulation.

"A good presidential campaign is not headquarters first," he said. "A good presidential campaign is that the headquarters supports the battleground states — the Iowas, the Virginias, the Ohios. We're here to provide assistance to the local teams."

Uber hasn't been afraid to experiment with small-scale pilot projects at the local level. On Tuesday, the company said it would start delivering common convenience store items through a test in Washington, D.C.

Uber has proven appealing to both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives have sought to lay claim to the company's loyal users, with the Republican National Committee launching a petition this month to support Uber. The RNC said the ridesharing firm was successfully challenging regulation and fighting entrenched political interests. Republicans stand to benefit from courting the young, wealthy voters who use the service.

But it now seems as though Uber was preparing something even bigger. The hiring of a veteran Democratic operative with a successful track record hints at how Uber will tell its story to the public and to hundreds of regulators around the country.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.



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Brian Fung · August 19, 2014

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