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01.24.10

Bringing Back David Plouffe Will Totally Work

Former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon says the return of Obama campaign guru David Plouffe will work by getting the president better press coverage. But will a political fix solve a policy problem?

Here’s a seeming contradiction for you. Bringing back David Plouffe to get a handle of President Obama’s political communications is total bullshit. And it will totally work.

It is true that Plouffe excels at what he does. He’s one of the very best in the business. For sake of argument, let’s say the best. And no one questions the importance of his role in helping win the presidential campaign. Great strategist. Great organizationally. Great on message. Great guy.

The media wants an admission from the president that things are not going well. And they always read a personnel change as a white flag.

David Plouffe may be all the above, but one man alone is not going to be able to redirect the federal government or the policies that have been set in motion by events and by his boss over the last year. The first year in the White House sets the tone and framework for a presidency, and it is the time when all presidents have the greatest capital. As President Obama just proved, that capital dissipates dramatically after your freshman year.

It’s not like President Obama has had a shortage of seasoned political and message hands around him. Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, Anita Dunn, Jim Messina, Patrick Gaspard, Dan Pfeiffer and others are all best in class. Nor are there evident weaknesses among the players Obama has on the field. Yes, Plouffe knows all the plays and the smoke signals and has the full confidence of the president. It certainly will be good to have him around. But his presence will not in itself be a game change—to use the phrase popularized by the new book out from authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

Peter Beinart: Obama, Don’t DespairAnd yet, or and/but as Halperin is fond of writing, it will work.

Here’s why.

Washington and the media are obsessed by process and personnel stories. They always confer ridiculously exalted status on consultants, rewarding them with outsize responsibility when they win and disproportionate blame when they lose.

And Washington wants a pound of flesh. The media feeds on conflict. They want an admission from the president that things are not going well. And they always read a personnel change as a white flag. And it doesn’t matter that in this case nobody was thrown under the bus. As Axelrod told ABC News: “I think that the reaction to it has been overblown, but I know that Washington loves the shakeup story. Washington loves the ‘When are we going to throw a body out?’ story. That's not how we roll.”

But it is how Washington rolls. And at the end of the day, that reaction will help Axelrod and company. Even if Team Obama didn’t do a thing differently because of Plouffe’s presence, the press is going to reset the story. Good things—that would have happened anyway, but would have been otherwise ignored—will now be attributed to and written about as the Plouffe factor.

During George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, we found ourselves squarely on our heels after New Hampshire. And we desperately needed the press to write a new narrative. In this case, it wasn’t a personnel change, but rather something as simple as theme line change. Karen Hughes, among others, on Team Bush had been frustrated by the traction John McCain had gotten with his reform message because as Texas governor, Bush had been responsible for enacting significant reforms himself. So Hughes came up with the idea of reframing Bush as “a reformer with results.” I was skeptical. I thought trying to run on reform against McCain would be paddling into a waterfall. But, it worked. And it worked primarily because the press saw it as an admission that what we had been doing wasn’t working and we were trying something else. In truth, we proceeded to do much of what we’d been doing all along; we just got better treatment from the media.

The same could be said when Bush switched his chief of staff from Andy Card to Josh Bolten. Or changed Defense secretaries, replacing Don Rumsfeld with Bob Gates.

Now, here’s the catch. Team Obama will get a short grace period, during which they’ll need to show results. Success will depend on showing real and fundamental changes in policy and governing. Plouffe is a campaign guy, which is a little problematic; some will interpret his hiring as an attempt to apply a political fix to policy problems.

But Plouffe does have the right stuff. And he will help get operations outside the White House better coordinated. He has great political antennae and will help anticipate and avoid disasters like Massachusetts. Or he’ll become the next body they throw into the propellers.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.