As the 2012 Obama reelection campaign geared up, there was open warfare with two of his closest aides, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs. An inside look at the messy drama at the heart of the campaign in an exclusive excerpt from Richard Wolffe’s The Message.
The press liked to call their style No Drama Obama.
It was a nice turn of phrase that matched the mood of the candidate in 2008.
But that all changed with the reelection. The personal tensions started earlier and rapidly worsened. They fought in private and in the open. There was plenty of simmering, and often a high boil. The team of rivals rarely achieved a spirit of cooperation and seemed more inclined to bitter, dogged rivalries.
There was a new actor in the campaign drama: Jim Messina. Obama convinced Messina to leave his political father, Sen. Max Baucus, by calling him the day after Hillary Clinton dropped out of the Democratic primary contest. The sales pitch was neither about hope nor change. “You’re really going to get to run a business,” Obama told Messina.
Seven days later, Messina was in Chicago with control of the campaign staff and its budget. On his first day at work, David Plouffe handed him a list of half a dozen people.
“Fire them,” Plouffe said.
So he did. Messina would introduce himself to bemused staffers and ask them to visit his office for a second or two. That was the last conversation they would have with him at campaign headquarters. Other staffers might be unhappy at taking the ax to new coworkers; Messina was not one of them. He was in Chicago to bring some order to an operation that had outlived the structure of the primaries. If that meant he was unpopular, so be it.
Just five months after President Obama signed his historic health-care reform into law, he shared his armored limo with Messina in Seattle, where they had traveled for an event to help reelect Sen. Patty Murray.
“Everyone says you should run the campaign,” Obama told Messina. “How will I replace you?”
Messina asked to defer the conversation until after the midterm elections of 2010. Which was how he ended up in Hawaii at Christmas, wading through the surf with the president of the United States, discussing his next job as manager of the 2012 reelection.
There never was another serious candidate for the position. Plouffe had handed him operational control of the 2008 campaign. And the following year, in the White House, Plouffe had once again told Messina to run Chicago. Implicit in that offer was the notion that the two operatives could maintain their working alliance: Plouffe would set the course and steer the strategy, while Messina would run the machine. Plouffe could stay inside the White House, close to POTUS, while still controlling a headquarters 700 miles away.
Messina walked into the empty offices in the Prudential building in March 2011 with a single box of personal items. There was no structure and no staff: not even on paper.
The newly anointed Messina faced his earliest, biggest staff challenges in two of the closest and longest-serving aides to Barack Obama: David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs.
‘He needs the guys to play cards and golf, and tell him where he’s going next and why,’ said a former aide. ‘But beyond that, it’s what function you have. And if you can’t fulfill that function anymore, or someone can do it better, you’re gone.’
Axelrod had in many ways created Barack Obama as a candidate. He had not just crafted his ads since 2004; he had cowritten his narrative. Obama was just an obscure state senator when Axelrod, the biggest Democratic consultant in Chicago, gave him the seal of approval to win the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. Obama was just a freshman in Washington when Axelrod turned down the Clinton campaign, and everyone else, to steer him to the presidential nomination and the White House. He entered the White House as a friend and keeper of the campaign flame: the high priest of the hope-filled Obama revivalists in a West Wing full of inside-Washington survivalists. After Obama delivered a flawless acceptance speech in Denver in 2008, Axe closed his eyes and embraced him with the kind of ear-to-ear smile that suggested he was almost in love with his candidate.
And then he was pushed out.
Not officially, of course. He was just leaving a little earlier than intended. Heading back to Chicago to spend more time with his family and recharge before the campaign. Nothing unusual, really. Just a wrenching expression of disaffection from the president he had fallen for. After two brutal years in the White House, when nobody was happy with the message, he was now on the outside looking in.
Robert Gibbs fancied himself as an Axe-in-waiting. Behind the scenes, he could serve as the strategic storyteller just as smoothly as he could play the role of the spokesman in front of the cameras. He had been Obama’s horse whisperer since 2004: his political coach and sidekick on tens of thousands of miles of campaign travel. When the candidate was sullen and grumpy—which was often—he could read his mood and adjust the bubble accordingly. He knew when to punch at their opponents on Obama’s behalf, and how to crack a stinging joke when his boss couldn’t. He entered the White House as a friend and confidant, and he liked to think of himself as an indispensable part of the family. Yes, he was disorganized and rarely returned phone calls from the press. Perhaps that constituted one of the jobs of the White House press secretary. But Gibbs was busy at the side of the president of the United States.
And then he was pushed out.
Not officially, of course. He was just leaving a little earlier than intended. Heading back to Alexandria to spend more time with his family and recharge before the campaign. Nothing unusual, really. Just a wrenching expression of disaffection from the president he had fallen for. After two brutal years in the White House, when nobody was happy with the message, he was now on the outside looking in.
“The president broke Axe and Robert’s hearts,” said one member of Obama’s inner circle. For those who remained, the departure of Axelrod and Gibbs sent a clear message: they were all dispensable. “He doesn’t need anyone,” said another member of the inner circle. “Axe and Gibbs were effectively fired. He owes everything to Axe. Everything. He’d never have gotten anywhere without him. I’d like to think he knows that and sees him differently. But I’m not sure.” Obama kept a close team of younger male staffers to manage his immediate needs, and that was all he needed. “He needs the guys to play cards and golf, and tell him where he’s going next and why,” said a former aide. “But beyond that, it’s what function you have. And if you can’t fulfill that function anymore, or someone can do it better, you’re gone. That’s hard for those of us who really believe in him. He expects full loyalty. But you need to have your eyes open.”
If Barack Obama—or any of his other senior aides—felt a pang about the departure of Axe and Gibbs, they did not show it. David Plouffe took control of the White House message operation, as well as Axe’s office close to the Oval, and nobody looked back. Jim Messina took Plouffe’s old job in Chicago, and the president tasked him with bringing both Axe and Gibbs back on board in more limited roles. Plouffe and Messina claimed to be just as much of a believer in Obama’s brand of hope and change as Axe and Gibbs. But behind their intensely competitive exteriors, they nurtured intensely competitive interiors. Unlike Axe and Gibbs, they were still on the inside ring of Obama’s circle of confidants.
Gibbs was in some ways the easier of the two heartbreaks, because he failed to put up a fight. He was making huge amounts of money on the speaking circuit—up to $1 million a year—and toying with job offers in the private sector, including one from Facebook. But that wasn’t enough, and the campaign couldn’t—or wouldn’t—give him what he wanted. He was paid $15,000 a month to jump on some calls, and travel out to Chicago once a week in the early stages. But he made no more than a dozen trips to headquarters in 20 months. He had no appetite to jockey for power with those running the communications team in Chicago. And he was excluded from the senior message meetings in the Roosevelt Room in the White House on Sunday nights. “Robert to this day isn’t whole,” said one senior Obama aide. “We paid him to do absolutely nothing. What he wanted was to hang out with Barack Obama, and there was no way he was going to be allowed on the plane. The plane was very disciplined and there was no role for him there.” Between Plouffe and Jen Psaki, Air Force One had no room for Robert Gibbs. “Typical Obama structure: we knew what we wanted and we weren’t going to do something else.”
The struggle began with Axe’s hiring and his contract negotiations. For consultants like Axelrod, election cycles were opportunities to turn candidates into elected officials, and to turn fund-raising dollars into personal wealth. In 2008, none of the consultants knew how big the Obama operation could be. Many of them did not expect Obama to decide to run for president, never mind win the Iowa caucuses and the party’s nomination. None of them dreamed Obama could raise the kind of dollars he did in 2008, when he smashed all fund-raising records and opted out of the public finance system for presidential campaigns. So consultants like Axelrod capped their fees, which are normally a tiny percentage of the total spending on their part of the ad budget—whether TV commercials or direct mail.
Four years later, they were not going to make the same mistake. The reelection was forecast to be a billion-dollar campaign, and they wanted their fair share. Axelrod hired a lawyer to negotiate his deal, which was a combination of a monthly fee and what he called “a very, very small percentage” of the overall TV ad budget. For Axelrod, the fees were only part of the story. After almost two years of campaigning solely for Barack Obama, he had spent two years away from his family, working inside the White House. The personal and financial sacrifices were real. Plouffe had made a fortune on the speaking circuit while Axelrod was struggling to find the message during the Great Recession and the rise of the Tea Party. Everyone else could monetize their 2008 experience except the man most loyal to the president.
Messina took a different view. He did not seem to appreciate Axelrod’s decision to hire a lawyer to negotiate a deal. In his mind, nobody was going to get rich from the reelect. Salaries were capped. Donor dollars would not flow like they did in 2008. And while Plouffe officially stayed out of the dispute, he had a reputation as a tight-fisted manager who was loath to waste cash.
As for President Obama, this was just the sort of dispute he hated. In policy debates, he seemed perfectly happy to watch and listen as his closest aides engaged in lengthy argument. His first economic team had been at war with each other on matters big and small from the days of his first transition through the first two years in the White House. But his political team was his blind spot. It seemed unclear—even to his most senior advisers—whether he knew about the simmering disputes inside his political team. Those advisers suspected he knew about the conflicts but pretended they didn’t exist because he had no desire to resolve them, and because he hoped they might peter out. Obama wanted consensus on communications and strategy, not personal conflict. And since Axelrod selected and controlled the message teams, consensus was generally what Obama got. “The principal’s position is: ‘You guys figure it out. Come to me with your recommendation,’ ” said one communications insider. “Obama generally doesn’t like to be in this position when it comes to political stuff. He does not mind disagreement at all on the policy. But he has placed a huge amount of trust in navigating his political career in this team, and in particular David Axelrod, from the beginning, and it’s hard to argue with his success. So let’s be honest: at the end of the day, Axe controlled who got which contracts. There’s not a lot of percentage in disagreeing with him.”
Except the contract negotiation was not in Axelrod’s control. It was in the hands of Messina and, by extension, Plouffe. Messina told friends that he was acting under the president’s direction, which he characterized like this: “I want everybody treated fairly, but I don’t want anybody to get rich on this. They’re gonna get rich on the books they write afterwards.” Many of those who worked with Messina doubted his accounts of conversations with Obama or Plouffe. But he acted as if he was empowered by them, and he was. Messina and Axelrod negotiated hard, as Messina hacked away at Axelrod’s demands.
For the first six months of the campaign’s life, the contract talks between Axelrod and Messina led to festering resentment at the heart of the leadership in Chicago. Axelrod made it clear that he felt Messina was not up to the job of campaign manager. He liked to compare the relationship between Plouffe and Messina to the two strongmen running the Kremlin. Plouffe was President Vladimir Putin, the man really in charge, while Messina was his henchman and prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Axe respected Plouffe highly, but he did not believe that Messina was an honest broker. He felt that Plouffe had no sense of the day-to-day business in Chicago, while Messina was desperately overcompensating for his insecurity and lack of control.
So Axelrod ran his message team independently of the person supposedly leading the entire operation. Until the fall of 2011, the two most senior figures of the reelection campaign were in open conflict. There would be little trust between them moving forward, and their dispute spilled into other relationships and operations across the Chicago office. Axelrod repeatedly tried to convince other senior aides to bypass Messina, and they believed he was trying to oust Messina altogether. Axelrod had never wanted him to get the job in the first place. Now he was complaining to others inside Obama’s inner circle about Messina’s shortcomings, but there was no support for a change of campaign manager. Axelrod knew that Plouffe had confidence in Messina, and nobody could come up with a good candidate to replace him. “For a good six months of that campaign, they were trying to wedge him out, which created all of the divisions,” said one senior Obama campaign official. “But there was no one else, and Messina had positioned himself with Plouffe. Axe had tried a long time to prevent him from getting that job.”
Messina returned fire in much the same way. He could not fire Axelrod—not least because Axelrod had already been pushed out. And he could hardly dismantle Axelrod’s team; that team was almost the entirety of the message machine. Instead, they fought by proxy, like cold war superpowers trapped inside the so-called Prudential building.
From the book The Message: The Reselling of President Obama. Copyright (c) 2013 by Richard Wolffe, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.