04.22.11

Obama's 2012 Campaign: What's the Strategy?

Shrouded in secrecy, Obama’s reelection team is plotting its next move—mapping swing states, training up volunteers, and raising big funds. Daniel Stone on the quiet beginnings of an epic campaign.

The difference is subtle but telling. Back in 2007, when Barack Obama was trying to cobble together a presidential campaign, the operation started small, and then grew. A year later, the campaign headquarters finally moved into respectable offices on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. One campaign staffer at the time, seemingly flummoxed by the meteoric rise of his boss and the operation’s new digs, told Newsweek an often-obvious truth in life: “The place where you do business tells people how seriously to take you.”‬

If that’s the case, Obama’s redux of his 2008 campaign plans to command hefty respect. From the start of the president’s 2012 reelection campaign kickoff, senior staffers moved into even fancier office space in the city’s tony Prudential Building, with a posh view of Grant Park, where Obama celebrated Election Night.

That’s just the start of a new campaign that seems to feel a lot more comfortable and secure with its electoral chances. Senior Obama officials in the White House and the campaign have been conscious to frame the race as a “ nail biter" in order to build grassroots interest and support, but the mood among Obama’s inner circle is noticeably more relaxed and confident than in 2008 when early fundraising money trickled in and the campaign fought off constant criticism about running as a rookie.

“This is a completely different campaign in many ways,” says Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Obama’s deputy campaign manager and 2008 veteran. “Obviously not having a primary is a very different kind of tactical campaign effort, so we’re thinking of how we build our operations and engage supporters.”

The electoral atmosphere will be undoubtedly different. Several of Obama’s signature efforts, including health-care reform and the 2009 stimulus, hit a partisan nerve during the first half of his term and remain divisive. The sluggish bounce-back of the economy would be a challenge to any incumbent president. And the 2010 midterms illuminated a newly organized part of the Republican Party that could raise serious money and be a potent electoral force.

“The country’s been through a lot and we’re now trying to redefine the battlefield,” says a campaign strategist.

Many of the early details about how to confront those issues and overall campaign strategy are being kept close to the vest for now. Staffers declined to disclose how many people are currently working for Obama in Chicago, and how fast the operation has been taking in money. But so far, campaign events hosted by the president himself have had high yields. At several fundraisers this week in San Francisco and Los Angeles, some supporters donated up $35,800 per couple, the maximum allowed by federal election laws.

But there are already noticeable changes from their last rodeo, especially with how volunteers are being courted and put to work. The Camp Obama program in 2008 that trained mostly college-age voters how to sell the candidate is now being rebranded as the Obama Summer Organizing Program. Despite applicants working as volunteers, it’ll be more selective than last time around, but now open to all ages. Campaign officials have also plotted to build on the president’s social-media successes in 2008, bringing in some of the same twentysomethings who ran his online portal my.barackobama.com and Facebook messaging (Twitter had not yet invaded politics in 2008).

Despite the clear advantage of having all the trappings of the presidency—Air Force One, a support staff of hundreds, guaranteed press coverage—Obama’s challenges may be new and unique. “Last time he was an underdog and outsider and really led a movement,” says Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Al Gore’s 2000 and John Kerry’s 2004 campaigns. “This time is different. He’s the president. His campaign will have to take advantage of all the things they did last time, coordinating and using technology. It’s hard not to be institutional.”

Campaign insiders admit the glaring irony this time around that Obama, who argued in 2008 that he was seasoned enough to be in Washington, would now have to paint himself as an outsider taking on the system. It could be a tougher sell, considering that being president makes anyone the ultimate insider. But the president’s 43 percent approval rating, which has dropped almost 20 points since he took office, shows the depth of the gap he’ll have to make up. Obama himself has even joked about the lost love. At the Palo Alto headquarters of Facebook on Wednesday, Obama confronted the disillusioned. “Your friends come and you say: 'Oh, Obama's changed. I used to be so excited; I still have a poster’… I understand how you guys feel. But we knew this wouldn’t be easy. We knew that on a journey like this there were going to be setbacks. There were going to be detours.”

While Obama delivers the message, back at the campaign headquarters the focus is on precinct maps. Several Democratic strategists say that the challenge is to keep the playing field large with up-in-the-air states staying out of Republican hands for as long as possible. Senior leaders like Mitch Stewart, who is Obama’s battleground states director, are reworking the map, figuring out which states are worthy of the most resources. “Last time Virginia and North Carolina turned out to be decisive, but the country’s been through a lot and we’re now trying to redefine the battlefield,” says the campaign’s O’Malley Dillon. Those strategy sessions resulted in the president’s trip to Los Angeles and the Bay Area this week, both considered perennial ATMs for Democratic nominees.

Yet the largest strategic consideration is one that will still take months to sort itself out: Who will be Obama’s final opponent? Those close to the campaign who spoke with The Daily Beast were reticent to handicap the Republican field. But over the past two weeks, as presumed candidates Donald Trump and Mitt Romney slung mud at each other over things like net worth and birth certificates, Democrats have been glad to sit aside and just watch.

Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.