The Man Who Made Obama
Campaign manager David Plouffe got the first black president elected. Now he’s moving on to something even more difficult, and potentially more important.
By: Lisa Taddeo
When you have been to the moon, you can’t come back to Earth and stand in line at Starbucks. You can’t order a coffee, and pay for it, and drink it beside someone wearing Sarah Palin glasses and a cruise visor. The regression to mediocrity is stunning and sapping. You would die inside.
After de-mooning, Buzz Aldrin got depressed and divorced. He drank and he returned to the Air Force. But the Air Force doesn’t fly to the moon; it’s glad to clear the clouds.
Campaign consultant Paul Begala landed Bill Clinton the most powerful job on the ground. That’s a moon trip, too. Once, Begala sent Buzz Aldrin a fan letter. What Begala wondered — because it’s the same question that bedevils the people who get other people elected president — is what you do after you come back down. What in the world do you do now?
“Buzz was the second man on the moon, and the guy comes back and he can’t get out of bed in the morning,” says Begala. “What the fuck do you do after you get on the moon? What the fuck do you do?”
There is a picture of large-eared David Plouffe in his college newspaper. It’s 1988 at the University of Delaware, and there’s a story on the student who, two decades later, would design a black man’s winning campaign for president that at its most linear was described by its opposition as “perfect.” At its most cultish, it was “breathtaking,” “golden,” “justice.”
The seven-hundred-word article is about beer pong. Plouffe and his college roommate were prolific. “For two years,” says Barack Obama’s campaign manager, “that’s all we did.” Classes, he wasn’t that into them. He never graduated.
Today Plouffe, forty-one, is wearing a bargain-colored henley shirt and smiling into his grouper sandwich. It’s a cold day in early December in Washington, D. C., and Plouffe’s face has a windburned clean to it. Life has become the whirlwind that happens when you have publicly done something very good, or bad. His mouth becomes a cartoon shape when he smiles, a sunny crescent.
“You have to use a paddle, or you can use a saucepan, but where do you think the word pong comes from? It’s not just about the ball,” he says. In fact, if you think it’s just about the ball, you’re missing most of the game.
An old college buddy says that Plouffe was far more skilled at the hanging out and drinking than at the game. He also loved Roger Clemens and the Democratic party. Originally from Wilmington, he cleaned chimneys and sold knives during college summers.
This is not the sort of man who looks as if he’s good at asking for money. He’s calm and has a pent-up grin. He says “Listen” a lot. It’s moderately jarring. It makes you think that what he’s about to say is essential, so come closer. “Listen.” But really it’s only a blinking cursor, a half beat of an inflection.
You might describe this shy middleman by not describing him. He has a widow’s peak, which today has been gelled into rigid formation, and the teeth of a man who has never smoked a cigarette. He’s small and lean and always seems to be folded into a gesture of lanky politeness, arms crossed, and legs. He wears T-shirts under his button-down shirts, like the small boys in high school did to feign bulk with cotton. On his first appearance on Fox News Sunday, he swallowed hard in between answers. He looked thirsty.
He is a modest champion, puppy-loyal, and wholly inoffensive. His friends and colleagues, both in and outside the party, unfailingly call him brilliant and kind and inspiring and inspired. “If he wanted to go invent cold fusion, he’d figure out a way to do it,” says Jim Messina, who ran the campaign’s budget and is now deputy chief of staff to Obama. Others suggest that General Motors, bleeding America in Detroit, could clot the hemorrhage by popping Plouffe in as CEO.
Here at this lunch table, David Plouffe is soft-spoken, and he is quick. He is nice to the waitress, but she is barely there, invisible on his radar, and the clang of the dishes and the laughter of lunchtime are inaudible. He keenly concentrates on describing his strategy. He is focused, meditative. He is yours for this hour, because this is what he has allotted. He is exact, and he is frank.
But also, David Plouffe is very quiet. No, not quiet, because quiet isn’t strong enough. Try reticent. David Plouffe is preternaturally reticent. Some might even say secretive.
“He is such a guarded person, intensely private,” says David Axelrod, Plouffe’s partner and Obama’s campaign strategist and now senior advisor. “The one thing I would say, if he ever invites you to a friendly game of poker, you shouldn’t go. You never know what’s going on in his head. . . . He’s got eyes that are like headlights, and you know that he’s taking in everything that he’s seeing.”
These are the qualities — the poker face and the hush, in the service of his also-quiet master — that helped him make winning Barack Obama the presidency look not just easy but preordained. Yes, there was some luck to it. A once-in-a-lifetime candidate, a fast-unspooling economy, a low point for national self-esteem, an opponent who, aside from a brief moment over the summer, was all but inept. But still, it takes impossible talent to make it look so easy. It takes genius and discipline. A campaign-season’s worth of silence.
But David Plouffe has something else now. Something that Aldrin lacked, something that eluded Begala and Carville and Atwater and even Karl Rove, who rode his success into the White House. A magic beanstalk that will keep you on the moon, even while you’re back down at Starbucks.
David Plouffe has a list.
It was Plouffe (rhymes with bluff) who gathered the president’s unprecedented thirteen-million-name contact list, which has grown into a fulsome pulsing beast, and it is Plouffe who now owns it and keeps it under lock and key. Plouffe sent those thirteen million people an e-mail in mid-November and they replied, Yes, I still want to be involved, and yes, David Plouffe, I’ll have house parties when you tell me to. Here is who I am socioeconomically and socially. I am boxers; my next-door neighbor is briefs. Now the president has instructed him to make that list a new lever of government.
No president has ever entered office with this much information. The closest thing to it, Begala says, were direct-mail lists like Ronald Reagan’s back in 1980. But, he says, “it’s a different thing than Reagan writing, ‘Send me thirty-five bucks if you want to fight the Commies.’ ” This list is granular. And it is flexible and transferable to myriad media outlets — even those not yet invented. Begala believes it could potentially “revolutionize progressive politics.”
The idea is a national operation, likely named Organizing for America, that will resemble Obama’s grassroots operation in reach and love. It will be as finely tuned as the campaign behemoth and funded the same way — no money from third parties. If Obama has a policy initiative he wants to push, or a message he needs to disseminate, or a gaffe he wants to bat down, he will call David Plouffe and Plouffe will unleash the many-million-mouthed dog, just as he did all across America for these past two years.
If you believe in Obama and in the need for change and for a new, streamlined, hyperlinked Democratic party, then this is a watershed idea. It is a mechanism that could truly morph the power structure in Washington — waking up the unused, overslept public, as Plouffe successfully did on the campaign, and making an end run around lobbyists and interest groups.
But if you are part of the Old Guard — part of the pre-Obama DNC or a liberal interest group like the Center for American Progress or labor or the environmental lobby — which has spent years trying to figure out a way to rouse and organize the Democratic machine, then this new initiative might give you pause. Because if Plouffe runs it like he ran the campaign, unless you join the ticket and stay on message, you will be left on the bench, asking Sarah Palin for a light. It is a new Democratic take on the old Bush maxim: Either you will be with Organizing for America, or you will be against it.
“The outside groups are worried about being bulldozed,” says one well-placed Democratic source. “The question is, is this shortsighted on behalf of Team Obama? This is the strategy they adopted during their campaign, which was no independent expenditures, no 527’s, no outside groups. They would be command central on messaging. And it was a strategy that paid off . . . [because] everything went Obama’s way. You can’t count on that going forward.”
The fear is that the Obama machine will ignore any groups or messages not in sync with the administration. Or worse, that if for some reason Organizing for America falters, there will be a vacuum.
Perhaps it’s a silly fear. Misplaced. I mean, just look at David Plouffe sitting there, courteously sipping his Diet Coke from a straw, talking about the right way to get a small white ball into a red cup. He just got Barack Obama elected president.
You can trust David Plouffe. The president sure as hell does.
President Obama is in Hawaii. It’s a few weeks before he’s sworn in, and he is taking time from his family to confirm that Plouffe was not mostly lucky in getting him elected. “I don’t buy it,” he says. “If you just look at the mechanics of our campaign, how we raised money, how we turned out votes, how we managed the caucus process — all these pieces were incredibly complex, and we had to build it from scratch. . . . I’m not sure there’s anybody [else] who could have done it.”
An aide has just said that this is one of the only interviews the president has allowed during his last vacation before taking office. He wouldn’t do this, they say, for anyone but David Plouffe.
This is why. People love other people when they are behind the scenes and precisely brilliant there.
“David is a very unassuming guy,” says the president. “He’s not flashy. He’s not loud. He doesn’t wear his brilliance on his sleeve. He’s not trying to impress people. But what I think people miss with David is how tough he is — somebody who’s very confident about what he knows, and he’s able to stand his ground when he thinks he’s right.”
Fellow golden boy Axelrod was the professorial message. The Socratic dude with the uncombed hair and the rambling intelligence who oversaw the sound and the vision, what Obama stood for and how he presented himself. He was the David you knew, the one who pointed to the name on the side of the rocket and pointed to it again and read it to you backward.
Together the two winning Davids sit at a postelection symposium at Harvard in early December. Here, the brains behind the McCain and Obama campaigns are gathered before an audience of bright kids so that the future may learn from the past. They reconstruct what they did right while the losing side — McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and pollster Bill McInturff — defend what they did wrong to a crowd who cares only to hear from the winners.
Onstage Axelrod preens in tweed. In the bright lights, he says the presidential election is an MRI for the soul. He smiles when he uses the word nostrums. Axelrod is the floppier David, who almost missed a plane because he forgot his briefcase at Joe Biden’s house, who got glazed doughnut stuck in his BlackBerry’s tracking ball.
Plouffe, meanwhile, sits boyishly. He’s the meticulous David who charted the course for winning the electoral college from an unseen helm. Plouffe would rather be with his map. “I look at it on the computer all the time,” he says later. “It’s kind of like my North Star. They can never take that away from me. I don’t think my wife would like it, but I’d put that map up in every room of our house if I could.”
All day Plouffe chews carefully and entertains uninteresting bright-eyed questions. In his pink tie, sandwiched between Axelrod and McCain manager Rick Davis, Plouffe looks the least like he wants to be there.
On the campaign, he had the reputation of hanging back in meetings and on conference calls, keeping silent unless he had something significant to say. Spartan and purposeful. You can see it here at one of the Harvard debates. When the moderator says something about the gaucheness of the stage for Obama’s convention speech, Plouffe jumps in quietly but aggressively. “It wasn’t that bad,” he says, and he does not smile and he uses the man’s name, throws it back at him, along with his question.
It’s his subtle justice. Correcting missteps, protecting territory with a whisper and a light but certain shove. It’s how Plouffe operated on the campaign. If someone broke the hierarchy, if he disagreed with his supervisor and decided to take the matter straight to Plouffe, Plouffe would simply forward the e-mail back to the supervisor. No comment. No need. Now get back in line.
Near the end of the day, on his way to the bathroom, he hasn’t walked five feet before he is webbed by the spindly arms of the political groupies, the shawled women law professors, and the puffy beat reporters, who piece together their meals from convention salads. They stop him in his steady course, they grab his small elbow, Wait, wait, David Plouffe, David Plouffe. Hi, do you know who I am? We worked together back in . . .
He slows, though he keeps his body in the direction it was going, so all he needs to do is turn his head a touch to deal with the interloper. He smiles friendly as the baker, he lets his hand get lost in the folds of bodies.
No, he doesn’t know who you are, but he does remember working with you, because he’s a man who remembers everything. He doesn’t like to do the smiling, hand-shaking, dead-eyed nodding, but he’ll do it. It’s not what he was built for, but he does remember what it was like to knock on farm doors.
It was a grassroots fairy tale. The notion of farmers in overalls standing in voter-registration lines, holding straw hats in callused hands. It’s tangible and hardworking and Plouffe loves it: “You have this farmer who never voted Democrat in his life, and suddenly he says, ‘Hey, know what, I never thought I’d be voting for some black guy named Barack Obama from Chicago, but know what? I am.’ You can’t put a price on that.”
Plouffe first met the farmers in the early nineties, when he would tool around Des Moines in his blue Dodge Colt with a cracked windshield. He’d been one of twenty-five guys whom field veteran Joe Hansen had hired to work on railroad heir Sam Beard’s Delaware senatorial bid, and in two weeks Plouffe became the boss of them all. Hansen and Plouffe grew up there, in the sort of politics where you live off the land. They saved pins and looseleaf, nicked paper clips from the dentist’s office. Old ladies dripping red paint onto homemade yard signs.
“Plouffe outperformed everybody, by every metric,” says Hansen, a D. C.-based strategist and close friend who just came from breakfast at Plouffe’s place. “In 1990, when I moved back to Iowa and managed field organization for Tom Harkin’s [reelection] campaign, David got a job that was better than mine — so realize that in one cycle it went from me supervising him to him supervising me.”
Plouffe never returned to school to finish his final semester. Instead and doggedly, he marked high-end territory across the nation, from facilitating an East Coast hard-nosed beat-down (New Jersey in 1996, where he managed Bob Torricelli’s victory over Dick Zimmer — which Plouffe proudly refers to as brass-knuckle time) to Dick Gephardt’s deputy chief of staff job to the executive-director gig at the DCCC in 1999, where he raised a record $95 million for House races. A year later, he accepted a job with Axelrod’s consultancy firm (which would become AKP&D Message and Media) and went on to run Obama’s successful 2004 Senate campaign.
Finally, as campaign manager of Obama for America in early 2007, Plouffe was charged with building an underdog campaign for president from virtually nothing — no money, one office, five staff members, and a few dreams from one’s father. The main thing he knew was that there were no shortcuts. His focus was on 270, and every decision had to flow from there. You had to get the job done. He told Obama the same thing he told everyone who worked for him: You have to be all in. The president asked the manager, Are there shortcuts? And the manager said, No. You get to work, and you stay there.
David Plouffe orders his lunch neatly. He does not ask the waitress if his sandwich comes with fries or if his Diet Coke comes with lemon. “Elections are all about numbers,” he says. “You have to get a certain number of votes, delegates, you have to raise a certain amount of money, your strategy and budget have to be married to how many votes and delegates you’re trying to get.”
To get the numbers right, Plouffe broke down the country into sixteen separate campaigns — a different strategy for each battleground state — and gave each its own ground crew and press office. His desk back in Chicago was the control center. On the walls there were electoral maps in reds, blues, deeper blues. But the helm and the center was the desk, a wood-laminate piece, neat and lap-topped and bolted to the floor. Every morning he sat at that desk with a large to-do list that he parsed out to the to-doers. He watched the scroll of e-mails — he says it was like a volcano, exploding in bold at the top.
“We’d get the clips overnight, and I’d read them all. Hundreds of them. That’s basically what it was like. Wake up, reach for your BlackBerry, the way guys used to reach for their packs of cigarettes.” He read everything and got on a call, then another, and another and another. A rolling two-year conference call. He looks tired when he tells you.
Because he came from a place where hard workers could barely afford the twenty-five-dollar donations they pushed across the hay bale, he immediately acquired the reputation of budget miser. There was an Axelrodism that claimed that if you went to the bathroom, pulled out a paper towel, then went to pull out a second one, it would actually be a note that said, “See Plouffe.”
To find the voters and build a swarm of volunteers to help, he hired twenty-seven-year-old Joe Rospars and the rest of the former Howard Dean Web guys — now Blue State Digital — and made the most confident investment that a political campaign has ever made in the Internet. He brought them up from the basements and into top-line meetings. He told them, We have to beat Clinton. She has the establishment support, she has this huge system of money-raisers, so we must create an alternative network.
Beside the gray walls and atop the gray pattern carpets, they enacted Plouffe’s vision. These were futuristic people building small revolutions in a humdrum place. They took the now-comparatively primitive Web-roots platform that Dean — along with his manager, Joe Trippi, and Web guru, Nicco Mele — first unearthed in 2003 and extended it. There were more tools now. YouTube. Twitter. More potential inputs. They used them all and invented new ones.
Obama owned the Web because Plouffe believed in a few smart kids and let them go a little nuts. But the meticulous managerial thing, according to the Blue State Digital guys, is that Plouffe still held those nuts in the palm of his careful hand.
Plouffe maintains there was no forerunner to this strategy, not really. Not Dean or Trippi in terms of the Web, or Marshall Ganz, the famed Chavez farm-labor organizer turned Harvard professor, often (erroneously, according to Plouffe) cited as the brain behind the grassroots organization. Because he never tries to convince you, you are more apt to believe him. He says every situation was dynamic and that they got their plan from the people.
You talk to anyone who heard of David Plouffe before Election Day, and mostly it was because they got a few hundred e-mails from him, and they liked to see it as a personal thing. On e-mail, he was chatty. Conversationally, he asked for money. The college kid who wired ten bucks of twelve-pack cash to Plouffe felt like he was saving the country with a few fast keystrokes and Dad’s AmEx.
And yet Plouffe insists that to focus too much on the netroots is to overlook the pure fieldwork, which was essential to winning. “You can’t be too reliant on just technology in politics . . . knocking and phone calls is still the bread and butter.” He smiles. He likes the notion. It’s how he started. “It’ll be a long time before those new apps replace the old ones.”
The old application was a line of staffers and volunteers stretching down the fluorescent hall of Obama headquarters, past the great and daily newspaper wall in communications and out across America — each eager college kid, grandmother, and housewife, standing in their campaign T-shirt waiting for a “love note from David Plouffe,” in their words, so they might deploy their democratic energy. He drew the most passionate, thousands of them, into two- or three-day Camp Obama training sessions. Each team leader had his own job: You are responsible for finding twenty volunteers. You: fifty, a hundred, two hundred voters. Call them. Write the plan and then we’re going to track you.
Teams would report back with stats and the field directors would chart the cumulative info and they would know whether their “supervolunteers” were hitting their targets. Plouffe, back at his desk, sat at the top of the pyramid, checking the checkers, glancing at the North Star on his wall, believing deeply in the prize, in the red, white, and blue of mostly blue.
“Do you realize that more than half those volunteers had never been involved in politics before?” David Plouffe is wide-eyed now, and leaning in. “More than half.” He emphasizes the final word to let the incredulity settle. And then there is a moment — it’s almost imperceptible, and you almost wish you hadn’t noticed, because there is something agonizing about a private man showing public emotion. But it happens. His eyes tear up. The soft-spoken, indefatigable general is talking about his troops and his eyes glisten. Iowa, the grassroots effort, he says, rivaled election night. Then quickly he shakes the chaff from his hair and recomposes. Safely, he returns to his numbers.
This is the passion Plouffe rarely shows. But from top-floor, eventful offices, people will gush about it. The pep talks, for example. “They would, at the end, make you wanna go run off a cliff with the guy. He mixed a very hard edge with a sort of, I’m imagining Barack Obama on Capitol Hill as the next leader . . . a sort of inspirational rhetoric,” says twenty-seven-year-old speechwriter Jon Favreau. It was a centaur blend, the gruff, focused mug of the football coach and the graceful neck and confident purr of the golden orator. The night they lost New Hampshire, Plouffe said to get everyone across the country on the phone. In his uneventful and sure voice, he promised that he’d never been more confident and proud of everyone, and he ended it by saying: “Let’s go win this fucking thing.”
As much as he likes to inspire, he loves to win. When Plouffe plays baseball, he is always the pitcher. Like Roger Clemens, he is turned on by the hectic pulse of unmanageable jurisdiction, the notion of controlling a field with runners on every base. The calm during the storm. But the calm is only on the outside. There is a deeper sense of competition and passion, and Plouffe takes it and he uses it, but he doesn’t show it, not even after the win.
Obama saw this in the lead-up to the Iowa caucus. It’s when he realized he could trust Plouffe fully, and in the muck: “Plouffe was getting calls and e-mails all across the country, the newspaper reports saying that the campaign was over, and he was able to just keep us on a steady course and instill calm, and it showed me the kind of leader he could be in difficult times. It’s always easy to be a campaign manager when things are going well, but when things aren’t, that’s the real test. He was, in his quiet way, able to maintain focus and confidence.”
“I’m a competitive person,” Plouffe says, without pride but forcefully. His eyes and chin rise. “Elections are nothing about doing well. You win or lose, and I love to win, and it feels absolutely terrible when you lose. We built something from scratch,” he continues, “and we beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain. That’s like, uh, beating the L. A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics to win the championship.” If he had lost, “I’d have felt like I let the country down.”
To win the country, the manager took the risks. “We always seemed to be better when we were up in the high water,” says Plouffe. “Whenever we got safe, we stagnated. We liked rolling the dice.” This meant bleeding $25 million in North Carolina, $10 million in Indiana, $15 million in Virginia, just to keep McCain off balance. It meant convincing Obama to move his convention speech outdoors, though Obama worried it might rain. It meant convincing Obama to do a thirty-minute advertorial, even though Obama thought it was too risky so close to Election Day.
“Yes, it was high risk,” Plouffe says of the advertorial. It’s hard to convince the man you work for to do something he’s unsure about. Obama argued that the undecideds were already decided. But Plouffe explained the statistics to him. “Obama was not someone who understood numbers and states. He wasn’t a political creature,” he says. This wasn’t about undecided voters. This was about the soft supporters who had recently swung.
“We have to hold them,” the manager told the candidate. And the candidate relented.
Obama trusted Plouffe and Plouffe trusted himself, and Plouffe’s instinct was to look serene on the outside, while shrewdly gaming for angles within. Yes, David Plouffe is a numbers genius and his round, blinking eyes dissected a country into a few rounds of Battleship, but he is more, even, than the man Obama calls his “most valuable player.” He is Roger Clemens in the rain, down by two in the bottom half, stripping the ball hard and sure and a little to the left, knowing that even if this batter hits a homer, he will regroup and strike out the next twenty.
It is now early January. There are Christmas trees on the curbs. It’s cold and the end of a season and David Plouffe is in an airport. He’s one of those men in the security line who has his shoes off ahead of time and in his hands, five people before he needs to. He’s walking in thin black dress socks, and nobody knows he is important, only that he is not a pain in the ass.
David Plouffe is in an airport, three days after the president he got elected flew to Washington, D. C., to take office. But Plouffe is not going to Washington. He’s leaving for a speaking engagement in Arizona. It’s one of those things he’s been doing since he turned down Obama’s invitation to join the administration. Obama pushed him, because, he says, “There is nobody I trust more.” But Plouffe declined. “He understood that I would need to spend some time on the outside,” says Plouffe. “He also knew there was some value in having friends on the outside.”
For weeks, rumors of Obama 2.0 have been trickling out on the Internet. The talk is of the next Obama-powered revolution. Everyone in Washington knows that this slight man owns the e-mail addresses, but nobody is quite sure what he will do with them. For the most part, he’s kept his head low and spent time with his family, his new daughter born two days after the election, and he has slowed down to half civilian. There’s a book on the way about his campaign strategy, and he’s open to the possibility of corporate consulting. He’s had dozens of offers.
But now, as the airplanes taxi outside, Plouffe starts to talk about another story. A story about endless phone calls and meetings, some taken between diaper changes. Plouffe couldn’t talk much about it, he says, because they were still working out the legal details. And they needed to select who would be heading the DNC. But Tim Kaine’s appointment became public three days ago, and so in a few weeks Plouffe will be sending out another one of his famous folksy e-mails and posting an announcement on YouTube, in which he’ll formally announce the new initiative.
Organizing for America, he says, was six weeks in the making. In that time he spoke daily with Tim Kaine. They studied how the Obama campaign machine functioned and read briefings on how it could be transformed into Obama’s governing machine. Obama, he says, made clear that the mandate of Organizing for America was to push forward his agenda for change, not for reelection. “I can assure you it isn’t that way with Obama. He sent that message out loud and clear, and I could not agree more strongly.”
The model they came up with will be an independent entity under the umbrella of the DNC, with a separate staff in Washington, its own structure and Web site, and field offices with technical staff and fieldworkers across the country. Like the campaign operation. Also like the campaign, Organizing for America won’t accept any outside PAC or lobbyist money. Instead, it will be funded solely from individual donors.
“Most of what this entity will be doing is building grassroots support for issues and politics,” says Plouffe. “Let’s say there’s an energy effort, an energy plan, that the president and some of Congress would like to get passed. People would get out there and talk to their neighbors and try to build support.” Petitions, canvassing, phone calls, house parties. David Plouffe will send out an e-mail or a video: America, we need your help. The state field offices will go into action. And the housewives will unsuckle themselves from Oprah and the college kids will put down their pong paddles, and together they will rise up and their voices will be heard.
The voice of David Plouffe rises now above the announcements and the suitcase wheels. You can tell he believes this could be bigger than the campaign he just led, won, and loved. This will be a direct link to the people who got Obama elected, a way to harness the grassroots power of thirteen million hopeful Americans who voted for change and have pledged to help Obama and Plouffe enact it.
Mitch Stewart, Obama’s Iowa caucus director, will serve as executive director, with Plouffe overseeing from afar with the freedom to come and go as he pleases. But Plouffe will not be on the payroll. He says they wouldn’t pay him that much, anyway, plus he sees it as a way of passing the torch. But also, “The DNC has a history of having people on contract, and our hope is that that tradition can come to an end.” In other words, in the old DNC you could be a free agent, divide your time, come in as a pinch hitter. Not anymore. In the new DNC — in Organizing for America — you will work full-time for the DNC and Obama’s goals, or you will not work for them at all. Unless, of course, you are the unpaid architect of the whole initiative.
Plouffe insists the initiative has nothing to do with reelection. But by being part of the DNC, Organizing for America will be able to morph depending upon needs. “Some people will want to help out in a Senate race in 2010,” says Plouffe. He means giving or asking for money on the Web site. “We needed to have some entity to be allowed to have all range of possibility.” Options. David Plouffe, President Obama’s inside man on the outside, is giving the president options.
Of course, some people are scared of these options, especially if Plouffe and his team do indeed run Organizing for America in the same hyper-controlling way they ran the campaign. To them, Obama’s talk of a “new politics” that excludes them — the very progressive advocacy groups they’ve been building and nurturing since before David Plouffe cut his mullet — is a frightening affront.
They talk about an infamous finance-committee meeting last May, just as the long war with Hillary was winding down, when Obama’s national finance chair, Penny Pritzker, delivered a message: Do not contribute to these groups. The word was that anyone who works for or contributes to any independent-expenditure efforts could forget about working in an Obama administration. Many such groups feared that Obama didn’t have the stomach or the instinct to run a campaign against Republicans. But they did. They’d spent years building their own machines and were ready to get in on the action with funding from some of the very people Pritzker was now admonishing. And now the rookie and his Axelrod- and Plouffe-led posse was shutting them down. Oh, were they pissed. In the bars, they didn’t hide it.
“It’s not the Democratic party anymore,” one highly placed Democrat said. “It’s the Obama party.”
The president says one last thing about the manager before his handlers pull him off the phone. He says he has no doubt of David Plouffe’s truth and faith, of his love of country.
Even over a crackly phone line the president sounds like hope distilled into something gluttonously drinkable, peach iced tea for a hot-day hangover.
David Plouffe doesn’t speak as eloquently as the president. He doesn’t shine. But he does believe.
What that belief can become remains to be seen. The president’s impact and the manager’s execution, and the country’s will and work. Even for Plouffe. He’s the first to say that the real function and reach of Organizing for America won’t be fully understood until it gets running. Like the campaign, it is a living organism that will be ever-changing depending upon circumstance. But the sketch is there. And its potential impact could be utter and complete.
As for what happens if the money runs dry and the grassroots enthusiasm follows, or what becomes of all the old-line interest groups that have spent years working to mobilize progressive voters, or what happens if you have a Democratic message or pitch you want disseminated but without Obama’s approval — all that’s a bit unclear.
Listen, says Plouffe, quietly and forcefully. Calm and competitive, wired together. “My wildest hope is that the debate will move out of Washington” and onto the porches of America.
He says it with the earnest sincerity of the old patriotic ideal to which we float our flags. He says it so you want to believe him. And perhaps you should, because as quiet and reserved and calm as David Plouffe is, as many secrets as he seems to hold on to for himself alone, there is no doubting his conviction. In Obama, in changing the way politics is conducted, in the potential to harness the power of the movement he built, and himself.
Somewhere, behind the face of a man who has never preened, you can be sure David Plouffe has already thought through the questions. And he believes he has the answers.
Find this article at: http://www.esquire.com/features/david-plouffe-0309