Posted by: mutantpoodle | November 10, 2008

Musings from the brain trust

The New Yorker and 60 Minutes mined similar territory this week – CBS’s News Magazine talking to four of the Obama campaign’s top strategists, and the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza writing about how Obama won. A lot of the information is out there already – the “No Drama Obama” organization. But there were some fascinating tidbits. In the 60 Minutes piece, for example:

  • The campaign got organized very quickly, unlike most campaigns, which are the product of decades-long yearning for the Presidency by the candidate. This made the campaign more agile and responsive.
  • Obama wanted to focus on a grassroots volunteer organization, not only out of necessity, but in order to rekindle a spirit of idealism in American politics.
  • Obama, according to Chief Strategist David Axelrod, did not have a “pathological need” to be President, and needed to find another way to motivate himself for the long haul, which he did by focusing on what he could do if elected.
  • When the Jeremiah Wright YouTube video broke, Obama was the only calm one in the organization. His speech on the matter, A More Perfect Union, was a work of rhetorical brilliance widely credited with saving his campaign. His attitude at the time was, according to Axelrod, “I’m going to make a speech about race, and talk about Jeremiah Wright from the perspective of the larger issue, and either people will accept it or I won’t be President of the United States. But at least I’ll have said what I think needs to be said.” Campaign manager David Plouffe thinks that was the moment when people looked at Obama and saw a President.
  • Advisor Anita Dunn reminded reporter Steve Kroft that the Obama campaign strategy, laid out in June, included Indiana and North Carolina as battlegrounds, and no one – including, as Axelrod pointed out, the McCain campaign, took them seriously.

Lizza’ piece is more detailed, as you’d expect. It lays out just how methodical the Obama campaign was, start to finish, and how their outsider’s perspective helped them. Some excerpts:

  • For Obama aides, who viewed McCain as the one Republican with the potential to steal the anti-Washington bona fides of their candidate, Benenson’s polling was revelatory. “Voters actually did not know as much as I think the press corps thought they did about John McCain,” Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Obama, told me. “What they’d heard about McCain most recently, and certainly during the primary process, was that he was like every other Republican—fighting to sound more like George Bush.” [Pollster Joel] Benenson said, “What we knew at the start of the campaign was that the notion of John McCain as a change agent and independent voice didn’t exist anywhere outside the Beltway.”
  • Polling in the summer and fall of 2007 led the campaign to a choice between trying to win the debate that the Clinton campaign was eager to have—about Obama’s perceived lack of experience—and sharpening the debate about change in a way that could undermine Clinton. Once again, change trumped experience. “The much shorter path for us,” Benenson said, going into the jargon of political consulting, “was to eliminate Senator Clinton from the decision set as a change agent. We defined change in a way that Barack Obama had to be the answer.” Larry Grisolano, whose job was to oversee all spending on TV ads and mail, the largest part of the campaign’s budget, posed the question this way: “How do we talk about change in a way that makes Hillary Clinton pay a price for her experience?”
  • Axelrod believed that the argument about change versus experience would also apply in a race against McCain, and he laid out his argument to Obama in a strategy memo in late 2006, when Obama was still planning his Presidential race. “I was assessing potential opponents,” Axelrod told me. “I got to McCain and said that the McCain of 2000 would be a formidable opponent in a year that was all about change, but that he would almost certainly have to make a series of Faustian bargains in order to be the nominee, and that would make him ultimately a very vulnerable candidate in a year when people were looking for change.”
  • Obama, who is not without an ego, regarded himself as just as gifted as his top strategists in the art and practice of politics. Patrick Gaspard, the campaign’s political director, said that when, in early 2007, he interviewed for a job with Obama and Plouffe, Obama said that he liked being surrounded by people who expressed strong opinions, but he also said, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
  • Obama’s rallies had a strategic purpose beyond their visual impact, and, by putting pressure on Obama to scale down these events, Clinton and then McCain were able to take away one of the campaign’s most useful organizational tools—a chance to capture personal information about potential voters and campaign volunteers, and, toward the end, a means of encouraging supporters to vote early. The battle between the communications staff, which was spooked by the Paris Hilton ad, and the field organizers, who needed the rallies to help identify Obama voters, was decided in favor of the organizers….In the closing weeks of the campaign, crowds of fifty, sixty, and seventy thousand people greeted Obama at every stop—almost as if there were a pent-up demand to see him.
  • …in early 2007, Obama returned from a forum about health care knowing that he had not done well against Hillary Clinton. “She was very good, and I need to meet that standard, meet that test,” he told Axelrod. “I am not a great candidate now, but I am going to figure out how to be a great candidate.”

For me, what stands out in these pieces are a candidate whose self-image isn’t defined by victory, but in staying true to himself; one who recognizes his shortcomings and works to correct them; and one unafraid to listen to all opinions, but confident in his judgment when it is time to move forward.

There are those on the right (and some on the left) who say that we don’t really know Barack Obama, but to those people I’d simply say you haven’t been paying attention.

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