Obama '08 architect David Plouffe, author of the first insider’s tell-all, talks with Richard Wolffe about why he almost left the campaign, how he’s like Rahm—and Tuesday’s voting. Plus, read an exclusive excerpt from Plouffe's book about how Obama handled "Bittergate."
David Plouffe is the only member of Barack Obama’s campaign inner-circle who chose not to join the new administration in January. He was present at the creation of the Obama campaign and managed the 21-month venture with unmatched drive and strategic focus. His memoir of the campaign, The Audacity to Win, was published on Tuesday. He spoke to The Daily Beast’s Richard Wolffe about Sarah Palin, the off-year elections, and how he stacks up against Rahm.
Is it true you wanted to quit the campaign?
It wasn’t unhappiness, because I loved him and I loved the people I worked with. But we were having a baby that was due right before the election and my wife and son were moving back to Washington, we had a house under renovation, and they would essentially be abandoned for three months. But at the end of the day it was my wife, who perhaps had the most to gain from my leaving, who said the primary went on too long now; it was just too late to leave and bring in a new manager. After a conversation with Obama on the plane when we were flying to Washington and a couple subsequent conversations, ultimately I decided to stick it out.
"Whatever the results [of Tuesday’s elections,] there’s not much effect on the rest of the country. This is one place where I agree with the Bush administration. These are local races."
Why did you decide not to join the administration?
Having a baby two days after the election really forced the issue. I needed to hunker down for a couple of years with my family. After a couple of years, then we’ll revisit it. I am sure at some point we’ll talk about strapping the uniform back on. Though his team is terrific so there certainly is no need now.
You have such a different temperament from Rahm Emanuel. How can one boss like both of you?
We’re different, but we’re very similar in the way we’re focused on very tangible things and try to accomplish certain goals. I think Rahm is on top of everything. I don’t think there’s another human being who could do what he’s doing. The campaign is about less weighty matters but the president thought I knew everything that was going on. In that regard there was a similarity. We’re both very competitive. I don’t think we beat around the bush. And we have very fixed orientations and objectives. He’s more volcanic than I am, but it works for him beautifully. There are more similarities than people recognize. But I think the job of chief of staff in 2009 is about 20 times more difficult than campaign manager in 2008.
Health care was just about the only serious point of policy dispute with Hillary Clinton, about mandates, yet Obama chose a more centrist position in the primaries. Why is he getting criticism from the base for being centrist now?
I think the easy politics in the campaign would have been to just embrace mandates. But he said he wanted to focus on costs first as he tried to execute health-care reform. He wants to make sure that people are exempted if they can’t pay, and face the kind of penalties that are appropriate. But he takes things as they come and is willing to make calls on the merits. So his approach to health care has been pragmatic. And it’s going to get done because it’s pragmatic. People on the outer edge of both parties don’t appreciate pragmatism, but that’s what you need to get 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate. Ninety per cent of what’s in the final health-care package is what he said in the campaign, and every Democrat can be pleased with that.
But were you surprised by the criticism of the president?
People have strong points of view on the issues and I certainly respect that. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for the suggestion that he’s not being strong enough. He’s out there taking on the insurance industry. He’s working with a very complex environment in Congress. But we’re on the doorstep of doing something that our country and party has wanted to do for a century. It’s going to have a profound effect on the country. At the end of the day, let’s not lose sight that we’re providing coverage to just about everybody in America and making sure the cost comes down, and ending the insurance companies’ abuses. I wish we could do that with more Republicans but at the end of the day, we have to step up and get it done because the moment to lead is now.
Are the elections this week a sign of what has happened to Obama’s coalition?
• Read an exclusive excerpt from Plouffe's bookWe won a special election in the spring in New York and we didn’t beat our chests about the outsized impact of that. Whatever the results, there’s not much effect on the rest of the country. This is one place where I agree with the Bush administration. These are local races. They lost Virginia in 2001 and went on to have a big 2002. You can’t render any verdict on the Obama Virginia coalition because we’re not on the ballot. The biggest result won’t be one of the races. It’s that a moderate Republican was driven out of the race and the party in New York’s 23rd. Sarah Palin and the other dwarfs running that party, like Rush, are going to be purging people out of the party all over the country. It’s a very big problem. You’re going to see the extreme right of the party choosing more and more right-wing candidates and ignoring the problems that the country is facing.
The base seems unhappy with the president’s position on national security issues, especially Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. What do you say to their criticism?
We have good contact with the millions of grassroots supporters who built this campaign. They know Iraq is going to be wound down. Everybody appreciates the seriousness that he’s giving to Afghanistan’s issues. But organizationally, people are really vibrant. I think the reality is that you are always going to find some people who are willing to go out and criticize somebody. He’s trying to lead, and he’s trying to do so with progressive values. He’s trying to rebuild the middle class and repair our relationships with the rest of the world. He’s made enormous strides on all those things, but we’re in an enormously challenging time right now and we all need to pull together as a party and try to lead.
Have you found a useful role for the grassroots? Because I hear plenty of unhappiness from volunteers who think you haven’t.
We did some research and it was clear that the intensity level wasn’t going to be carried forward after the election, when you have very clear goals. That being said, what is happening out there, which is quieter than the teabaggers, is we’re reaching over 10 million people every time we email out a message. We have over 2 million people taking action on health care, going to events and calling members of Congress. But that is secondary to asking them to go out there and talk to their neighbors to try and answer their questions about health care. That is impactful. That is one of the reasons we’re seeing Republican attacks on death panels fade--because we’re out there having these conversations about this every day, and people are figuring out the truth. It has a great tentacle effect. If you have a great army of people out there talking to people about current events, there’s a value to that.
So are the tea parties having a positive effect on politics, too?
I think there’s always a value to the extent they are organizing and getting volunteers involved. I’m not going to criticize that part of what they are doing. But the message coming out is moderates need not apply in the Republican Party and that’s very dangerous because to be a vibrant national party, in a national election, you have got to repair your standing with voters in the middle and do better with younger votes, and dig out of the hole with African-Americans and Hispanics. They have big structural problems and what they’re doing right now is not addressing that. In fact it has the potential to make it worse. They seem to be only concerned with the paltry 20 per cent of the country they firmly have. Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are the Pied Pipers of the Republican Party. The 2012 Republican leaders don’t dare cross them.
Are we seeing the rise of the third party, independent movement?
That would have a devastating consequence for them.
How has the president changed over the last year?
I don’t think he’s changed at all. Obviously what he’s doing on a daily basis is much weightier than convincing people to support him or trying to build an organization in the state of Florida. But his metabolism in this job is remarkable, in taking on things as they come, in making decisions grounded in strategy and not being worried about the news coverage of the moment, and having a clear sense of where he wants to go. He brings that sense of calm, just as he had a very calming influence in the campaign. He’s keeping everybody focused on the long-term goal. That isn’t how Washington works. It goes for short-term victories. But he ran for president because he thought if we didn’t deal with healthcare and energy, the country would be worse off for years to come. What has changed is that he sees his family much more and there’s a sense of elation about that.
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.