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Tensions on the Campaign Team

David Plouffe, the architect of the president’s 2008 campaign, has just released a new tell-all. Obama biographer Richard Wolffe compares notes on accounts of his veep pick—and McCain’s.

10.30.09 10:07 PM ET

Presidents, and presidential candidates, are deciders. That’s what they get paid for, what the troops look for, and what their staff waits for. They may not need to say it quite as explicitly as George W. Bush, but the job comes down to decisions.

So what kind of decider is Barack Obama? According to the first excerpt from David Plouffe’s new book, he’s a mercurial one.

On the surface, Obama was simply steady-as-she-goes. An unflappable, no-drama type who was driven to win, just like Plouffe himself.

In my experience, covering the campaign for its entire 21-month lifespan, both Obama and Plouffe were, in fact, flappable. They just kept their flaps out of sight of the media.

Plouffe was Obama’s campaign manager, and a superlative one at that. Meticulous about the details, fiercely loyal and disciplined, tightly wound and smartly focused, Plouffe built a $750 million machine that changed the rules of presidential elections. He was Obama’s manager, strategist, counselor and motivator, all in one. He was also sharper-edged than his boss, more overtly aggressive about defeating the Clintons, and much more inclined to jump into the fray.

In public, Obama and Plouffe projected unity and focus: they were leading a highly trained team that rarely leaked and never disagreed with one another. In private, there were plenty of tensions and disputes, albeit muted ones. In my experience, covering the campaign for its entire 21-month lifespan, both Obama and Plouffe were, in fact, flappable. They just kept their flaps out of sight of the media.

So the conversations Plouffe recounts in The Audacity to Win, published next week and excerpted in Time magazine this week, are unusually insightful. Especially two decision moments: one about Obama’s veep pick, and one about McCain’s.

Obama stunned his closest advisers during discussions about who he’d like as vice president. Plouffe and his partner in politics David Axelrod were taken aback to hear that the candidate was considering Hillary Clinton for the job.

“What surprised me at [our first meeting to discuss the vice presidency] was that Obama was clearly thinking more seriously about picking Hillary Clinton than Ax and I had realized,” wrote Plouffe. “He said if his central criterion measured who could be the best VP, she had to be included in that list. She was competent, could help in Congress, would have international bona fides and had been through this before, albeit in a different role. He wanted to continue discussing her as we moved forward.”

That account does not entirely track with my own reporting in my book Renegade. It sounds entirely logical, as if Plouffe is channeling his Spock-like boss. But it's not entirely convincing. Clinton had to be included on the list, and was considered more seriously than expected. But that isn’t saying much, given that she wasn’t expected to be considered at all.

At the same time, Obama had already slotted Clinton into the position of secretary of state. In fact, he had done so in his own mind before the primaries were over. At least, that’s what President Obama would later tell me in the Oval Office. Which puts Obama’s decision-making process in a different perspective. Having already decided what job Clinton should have, Obama proceeded with a full review of his own instincts—a vetting of his own decision. He tests his judgment, and those of his advisers, without really engaging with a fully open mind.

That helps explain Obama’s next meeting, a couple of weeks later. Clinton remained on the list, but by this point had a presidential-sized asterisk by her name. “Barack continued to be intrigued by Hillary,” Plouffe writes. ‘I still think Hillary has a lot of what I am looking for in a VP,’ he said to us. ‘Smarts, discipline, steadfastness. I think Bill may be too big a complication. If I picked her, my concern is that there would be more than two of us in the relationship,”” Plouffe writes. Whether Obama was projecting himself as Princess Diana is unclear.

Plouffe concedes that neither he nor Axelrod were “fans of the Hillary option.” That line alone deserves an Olympic medal for understatement.

“Hillary did not make the last cut,” Plouffe explains, without a trace of disappointment. “At the end of the day, Obama decided that there were just too many complications outweighing the potential strengths. But I gave him a lot of credit for so seriously thinking about his fierce former rival. Some in the Clinton orbit thought we gave Hillary short shrift. My view is that any serious consideration was somewhat surprising given all the complications and the toxicity during the primary campaign.”

But those complications didn’t materialize at the end of the day; they were there from the start. And Obama’s entire inner circle knew it. What this decider wanted to do was consider all options, even the ones he—and they—knew he was not prepared to take.

Obama’s approach to McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin was even more interesting. It’s one thing to revisit your private decisions; it’s another to revisit your campaign’s public statements.

But that’s what Obama does in issuing a personal statement about the Palin pick just hours after his own team trashed the new GOP veep candidate.

“We decided to call McCain on the experience card directly,” Plouffe writes. “The value was in making him look political—essentially, calling him full of shit—and we sent out a release making that clear…Our statement immediately received an enormous amount of attention because it went right at her experience. The press clearly sensed heat and was eager to help drive the fight. Seeing the reaction, I began to think perhaps we had misfired. Obama clearly thought so. He called me from the air. “Listen, I just told this to Axelrod and [communications director Robert] Gibbs,” he began. “I understand the argument you guys were trying to make. And maybe we should make it someday. But not today. We shouldn't have put out the first part of that statement. I want to put out another statement that simply welcomes her to the race, and I'll call her and congratulate her when I land.”

It would not be the last time that Plouffe and Obama would disagree about a sharp attack on the GOP ticket. As I write in Renegade, Obama was unhappy with the campaign’s ad that attacked McCain for his role in the Keating Five scandal.

But he never made those disagreements public, as he did with the Palin reaction. In Plouffe’s account, the campaign manager pleaded with the candidate not to publicly dump his team. But Obama went ahead and did it anyway. (To be fair to Obama, Plouffe hardly objected to the corrected reaction to Palin; what he objected to was a public admission of error.) “I didn't disagree but thought backtracking would only add to the sense in the press that perhaps Palin was a brilliant game-changing pick that had scrambled the race,” Plouffe writes. “Even the famously disciplined Obama campaign can't get its story straight—this would be the blowback. ‘Look,’ I told him, ‘simply say that you're adding your own personal voice, one principal to another.’” He acknowledged that he understood and would watch his words. “We'll send out a personal statement from you and Biden,” I said, “but it's important you not suggest we misfired on the original statement. Don't throw the campaign under the bus.”

“But when he took a few questions from the press later that day, he proceeded to drive the bus right over us. “I think that, you know, campaigns start getting these hair triggers, and the statement that Joe and I put out reflects our sentiments,” he said. Great, I thought, already imagining the heat we'd take on this. But all in all, I felt solid about our instincts. Despite our clumsiness, I still thought we had nailed, in the predawn hours, what this pick would mean over time.”

So this decider is unpredictable and a second-guesser. He shies from overt attacks and is ready to correct mistakes in public. Everything is a learning experience, even if the lessons are embarrassing and strain the team. From the Palin reaction to health-care reform and the strategy review on Afghanistan, this work in progress is partially on public display.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.