Things had stabilized in Pennsylvania until Obama made his biggest unforced error of the entire campaign. I happened to be in western Pennsylvania, doing a round of interviews about the primary and meeting with some of our volunteer team leaders, when all hell broke loose.
The popular blog Huffington Post ran a story from a woman named Mayhill Fowler. Fowler, who had actually contributed to our campaign and was part of Huffpost’s citizen journalist brigade, had attended a recent San Francisco fund-raiser featuring Obama and surreptitiously made an audio recording of Barack’s speech.
In it, Obama made some cringe-worthy remarks: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
“I felt like we were really beginning to hit our stride again,” [Obama] said. “And this will set us back again. I can’t blame anyone but me for this. I’m sorry.”
“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Fowler reportedly agonized for days about whether to post and release the comments. She knew it would cause us major problems. Finally she talked to an editor who told her she had an obligation to make them public. Fowler agreed, and suddenly we were back in major damage-control mode.
The first problem was that once again we were blindsided. None of us knew he had made the comments. The event staff hadn’t flagged it. We normally recorded everything Obama said, but, inexplicably, we had failed to do so at this event. We never made that mistake again.
I couldn’t imagine a worse context for him to have made such boneheaded comments: standing in a room full of wealthy donors in San Francisco—to much of the country a culturally extreme and elitist city with far-out views—speaking in anthropological terms about the middle of the country; describing the setting, it really couldn’t sound much worse.
I called Obama immediately. He began to make a somewhat halfhearted effort to explain what had happened. First, he focused on the fact that he did not know he was being taped.
“C’mon,” I said to him, “in the world we live in, you know there’s a terrific chance that anything you say anywhere could be captured.”
He quickly shifted gears. “It should be clear what I was trying to say,” he argued. “But I really did mangle the words. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that I had misspoken, but looking at the transcript now, I really don’t know how the hell I constructed my point like that.”
I told him we would just have to fight through this. We’d say that the words were chosen poorly but the point is valid—economically stressed voters feel like their voices aren’t heard, that their struggles take a backseat in D.C., and that all too often efforts are made to distract and divide on social issues.
He was very quiet. A moment later he was going into an event and we had to wrap up. “I felt like we were really beginning to hit our stride again,” he said. “And this will set us back again. I can’t blame anyone but me for this. I’m sorry.”
That might be the only time in twenty years in politics I saw a candidate confront a setback so honestly. In my experience, politicians almost always look to blame someone else, circumstances, being tired—anything but accepting responsibility. And it’s not just politicians. It’s human nature.
With as light a heart as I could muster, I said, “Well, I’m just glad this broke after I left the meeting in rural western Pennsylvania. Most of the discussion was about how to convince people you weren’t going to take their guns away. Had this come out while I was there, I might have been bitter. At you.”
In the world we live in, nothing is private. At any time, someone could have a small video camera, audio recorder, or cell phone camera. No room was safe; anything the candidate said could be captured and launched on the Internet and then taken up by the mainstream media, ginning up a first-class crisis.
When I was coming up in politics, the saying was, Don’t put anything on paper you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. The new adage should be, Don’t say anything you don’t want posted on YouTube and whipped around the Internet at warp speed. We were spared to an extent in that there was no video of his comments in California, and the audio recording was not great quality. The words were still replayed incessantly, but because online video is now king, the clip didn’t get the play it might have.
My flight back to Chicago was delayed several hours. Once all the conference calls wrapped, I wandered over to the airport Chili’s for some comfort food and a beer. It was crowded, the Pittsburgh Penguins game was on, and in between some cheers and boos I picked up a conversation about “Bittergate,” which was just in its infancy. The gist of it went like this:
“So maybe this is who he is after all,” a guy at the bar said to his buddy sitting next to him. “He hid it for a while, but now we see he looks down on us if we hunt, go to church, lead normal lives. Just like the rest of the Democrats.”
“Maybe, but maybe he just messed up,” his friend replied. “It doesn’t sound like him. I’m going to put him on probation.”
That was music to my ears. Eyes lifted to the hockey game, I thought maybe we’d get put in the penalty box but not thrown out of the game. If the bitter comment had happened the previous fall, before he was as well known, we might not have recovered. But people now had enough of a sense of Obama to know that the statement was discordant with his whole approach and demeanor.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe. Copyright © 2009 by David Plouffe.
David Plouffe served as Democratic leader Dick Gephardt’s Deputy Chief of Staff in 1997-98. In 2001, he joined forces with David Axelrod and in 2004 their firm AKPD media served as lead strategist on Barack Obama’s successful U.S. Senate bid. After managing Obama’s presidential campaign, Plouffe helped set up Organizing for America, a thirteen-million-strong group of Obama supporters, to continue the spirit of the campaign. His website is www.davidplouffe.net.