NPR

'The Audacity To Win' The Presidency

If anyone is qualified to give a behind-the-scenes tour of Barack Obama's run for the White House, it's David Plouffe. A longtime campaign strategist for the Democratic Party who also managed Obama's 2004 Senate race, Plouffe — who is not serving in the administration — has a new book called The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory.

Plouffe remembers that when he and David Axelrod, who would become Obama's senior adviser, first met with the junior Senator from Illinois to discuss a run for the presidency, the idea seemed far-fetched.

"[Obama] jumped into this in a very unorthodox way," Plouffe tells Terry Gross. "But as it became clear that he was more serious, and this may happen, I think I began to really feel confident that he had the potential to be a terrific president. I wasn't sure he had the potential to be a great candidate."

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory
By David Plouffe
Hardcover, 352 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $27.95
Read An Excerpt.

One of Obama's challenges, Plouffe says, was learning to trust his staff enough to handle the mass of details that can overwhelm a campaign. He writes that in the run-up to the campaign for the Illinois Senate seat in 2004, Obama said he felt he could probably do every job on the campaign better than anyone he might hire to do the job.

"I did not think it was arrogance," Plouffe says. "I just think it was someone who had been, you know, in state Senate races — he had run for Congress once and lost — so you know, he had done most things by himself, and now he was running for statewide office, and so he had to learn to give up a little bit. You know, we all like to control our time, right? And to give that up is a pretty big sacrifice, but it's the only way you can really run a campaign."

Plouffe says that the speed with which the presidential campaign was convened meant Obama's staff didn't have time to fully investigate their own candidate, which led to some embarrassing moments. Not looking deeply enough into Obama's relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago was one gaffe. Plouffe says that when inflammatory quotes by Wright turned up in the media, they weren't prepared for the fallout.

"We weren't caught off guard that Wright had said inflammatory things," Plouffe insisits. "It's just, you know, some of those tapes, when they emerged on ABC and Fox News and then blew up all over the Internet, that was the first time we had seen those videos, and that was really unforgivable. In that respect, you know, we certainly let our candidate down."

But Wright's comments, and the media's response, led to a signal moment for the campaign: Obama's speech about race in Philadelphia. In The Audacity to Win, Plouffe writes that Obama had wanted to address the race issue explicitly, but that until the Wright episode, he and Axelrod had discouraged it.

"The political playbook certainly does not suggest that you elevate an issue like Wright," Plouffe says. "You know, what you try and do is do some interviews and hope it goes away, and what [Obama] said is, 'No, I need to give a speech about this and put it in larger context.' "

"We didn't do any polling," Plouffe continues. But the campaign found that Obama's style was winning voters. "What we saw after the Wright speech was there were still plenty of voters who were concerned about it, obviously, but they all, for the most part, thought that he had handled it like they'd like a leader to and like few politicians these days seem to."

But even as Obama began to pull ahead in the race, the campaign still had to deal with rocky terrain, as when Hillary Clinton stayed in the race beyond the moment when most of the media had declared the primary over. Plouffe says he understood why Clinton took her time conceding, especially because Obama's victory over Clinton was a year-and-a-half in the making.

"It was brutal," Plouffe says. "It was tough, it was close, [but] you know, she didn't take two or three months to kind of get her arms around helping us. She helped us right away, and in profound and important ways."

Clinton met with Obama before finally conceding, but Plouffe says she never levied demands against her support for Obama. Instead, the former senator from New York put all of her effort into helping the campaign defeat John McCain.

Now Plouffe is watching the action from a distance. Two days after the election, his wife had a baby, and he decided not to take a role in the administration. But he says that if Obama comes calling in 2012, he'll pick up the phone.

"I think one of the reasons we were successful," Plouffe says, is that the campaign "had a blank sheet of paper, and we studied history but we were not bound by it, and I think that made us a very strong and effective campaign."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It seemed like a far-fetched prospect in 2006, when my guest, David Plouffe, and his partner, David Axelrod, had their first meeting with Barack Obama about running for president. Plouffe became Obama's chief campaign manager, Axelrod the chief strategist.

In Plouffe's new memoir, "The Audacity to Win," he says that last November, he had a hard time actually believing they'd won; and Axelrod said, it's too big to comprehend. Plouffe writes: We had just elected the president of the United States; an African-American man, born to a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, just four years out of the Illinois State Senate. How they won is the subject of the memoir.

Earlier in Plouffe's career, he managed two U.S. Senate races, a congressional race, and was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In 2004 he became a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the firm founded by David Axelrod. Axelrod is now Obama's senior advisor; Plouffe is not serving in the administration.

GROSS: David Plouffe, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you'd worked on Obama's 2004 Senate campaign. When he told you that he was considering running for president, did you honestly think he was ready?

Mr. DAVID PLOUFFE (Author, "The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory"): First of all, we weren't sure he would run. I mean, you know, most people plan to run for president for years, in some cases decades, and so, you know, he jumped into this in a very unorthodox way. And I think both David Axelrod and I thought that he'd probably end up not running when we first began to discuss it.

But as it became clear that he was more serious, and this may happen, I think I began to really feel confident that he had the potential to be a terrific president. I wasn't sure he had the potential to be a great candidate.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Because he had never campaigned across the country, had never really been in a tough election where he had had attacks against him. And there are similarities, obviously, between a good candidate and a good president, but they also have quite some important distinctions. And so I think that was the outstanding question is: could he adapt to the rigors of this?

And you know, we obviously had some fits and starts, but you know, he ended up being one of the best presidential candidates to grace that stage, certainly in a generation.

GROSS: Now, you write that early on in the campaign, you told Obama that he had to let go and trust the staff, that the staff will inevitably screw up, but the most precious resource in any campaign is the candidate's time. So Obama couldn't also be the campaign manager and the scheduler and the driver. And Obama said: I understand that intellectually, but this is my life and career, and I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I'll hire to do it. And you said: This was my first exposure to Obama's significant self-confidence. Did you think of it at the time as significant self-confidence or arrogance?

Mr. PLOUFFE: No, it's interesting. That actually conversation is from 2003. So this is when he is in his Senate race. So to think about that conversation. I mean, we're basically talking about, you know, you've got to stop driving yourself, you've got to let someone else keep your schedule. And you know, five and a half short years later, he's been elected president. I mean, it's a remarkable trajectory.

So no, I did not think it was arrogance. I just think it was someone who had been, you know, in state Senate races - he had run for Congress once and lost - so you know, he had done most things by himself. And now he was running for statewide office, and so he had to learn to give up a little bit. And that's fairly common in candidates.

You know, we all like to control our time, right? And to give that up is a pretty big sacrifice, but it's the only way you can really run a campaign.

GROSS: You write that you had done zero research on your own candidate, violating a central rule of politics, know more about yourself than your opponents and the media do. Were you referring to Obama's Senate race or to the presidential race when you wrote that?

Mr. PLOUFFE: In the presidential race. There was some research done in the Senate race, although you have to remember that he ended up not having a competitive general election in 2004 in the Senate race, because his opponent had to drop out, so - and he ended up running against Alan Keyes in what was a cake walk, so - and because he had not been preparing to run for president.

If he had been preparing to run for president in 2006 and 2007, you know, we would have had people doing research. But that was a casualty of kind of how we got into this, which was very last minute, without a lot of planning. And so that made the entry into the campaign difficult because we are having to deal with things like, you know, making sure computers worked, and we had a Web site, and we got staff on the ground in Iowa and places like that - but we were also getting a lot of inquiries about his life, and we didn't have all the answers.

So that was a really tortuous period, because every day, you know, we'd get inquiries that we didn't have the answers to, and so�

GROSS: What should you have known that you didn't know about Barack Obama when you started running his presidential campaign?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, I think again it was less a sin of commission that just of circumstance. So you know, the kind of things you wanted. You want to evaluate, obviously, every vote he cast in Illinois and in Washington and all the campaign contributions and all the statements that have made. And you know, we didn't have all that. We had to gather all that, in many respects. So it made it difficult.

GROSS: You got blindsided by Reverend Wright twice during the presidential campaign. The first time was just before he was scheduled to give the invocation when Barack Obama was announcing that he would run for president, and a Rolling Stone was just published in which - what were some of the things Wright was quoted as saying in that that you found upsetting?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, there was many. I actually right now can't recall the exact language, but it was, you know, very inflammatory. It was along the lines of the type of thing that we would see later in '08 popping up all over the Internet and all over cable TV.

GROSS: Well, let me quote what you say in the book that you found most disturbing. Reverend Wright said we were deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional killers. We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. We conducted radiation experiments on our own people; we cared nothing about human life if the ends justify the means.

So after reading those quotes in Rolling Stone, you and Barack Obama and the team decided that Reverend Wright should not give the invocation, he should just do a kind of quiet prayer, backstage, behind the scenes with Obama and his family. And you write, but you still didn't investigate him more. What do you think, in retrospect, you should have done to find out more about Reverend Wright and about how statements that he was making or had made might affect the campaign?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, I think we should have gone through and looked at every sermon, every statement he had ever made, and you know, we did not do that. We looked at some of them.

GROSS: How come you didn't do that? Did you think, well, this was just an aberration, or people were blowing it out of proportion? Like - why didn't you look more?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, I think we thought, you know, we - you know, and what, you know, Barack Obama had said previously about this was obviously, we all have pastors and priests and people who say things we don't agree with. And you know, his relationship with that church community was quite strong, and you know, it was much more about the church community - they do remarkable service work and mentoring work - than any one individual.

So I think that we thought that that would be raised, and that would be how it would be answered. But I think that we should have gone through everything ever said. It was kind of a breakdown. We thought some of it was being done by our research department, and it was, but not as thoroughly.

We should have - a group of us at a more senior level should have, you know, demanded to look at all the videos of the, you know, inflammatory language so that we could gauge whether it would be, you know, a destructive impact or not - and we didn't do that.

And so, we weren't caught off guard that Wright had said inflammatory things, it's just, you know, some of those tapes, when they emerged on ABC and Fox News, and then blew up all over the Internet - that was the first time we had seen those videos, and that was really unforgivable. In that respect, you know, we certainly let our candidate down.

And you know, the other thing is just to, you know, think through - obviously, he eventually, you know, separated from Wright and the church. And you know, we really never had that discussion about whether he should do that.

Now, most of the time in the campaign, he was, you know, attending church services in Iowa, New Hampshire and other places - not at Trinity. But - so it was really a breakdown and something that, you know, was very searing, because it wasn't just that, you know, we were going through a tough time - that's always hard enough - but when you deserve some blame for what's happening, it makes it even tougher.

GROSS: The statements that Reverend Wright had made and the controversy that surrounded them and the hit that Obama was taking as a result of it, led to his speech about race, which I think most people would agree was a kind of groundbreaking speech that really reached people, you know, in an emotional way. And from what you write, it sounds like Obama had been wanting to give a speech about race but that you and David Axelrod discouraged him from doing it until the Wright episode. Why did you discourage him from giving a speech about race?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, it wasn't something he had a great urgency about. He had just raised whether or not, you know, it would make some sense, you know, given his candidacy. And we explained listen, what, you know, people are focused on is who's going to end the war in Iraq, and who's going to create jobs for the middle class, and finally get health care done, and you know, it's tough enough to reach people with messages. If you're offering them too many of them, you're not going to be effective. And he agreed with that.

And what we saw in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is - I think there was some notion in the beginning of the campaign, you know, would he be able to attract support from white voters. And you know, we saw in Illinois, he did. But our view was listen, he either will, or he won't. We had confidence he would, but not much we can do about it.

So when it came to the Wright thing, I mean, this is a remarkable leadership moment. You know, the political playbook certainly does not suggest that you elevate an issue like Wright. You know, what you try and do is do some interviews and hope it goes away. And what he said is no, I need to give a speech about this and put it in larger context.

So that guaranteed that Reverend Wright would be the dominant issue in the campaign for a long period of time. And this was something that, you know, we didn't do any polling on, you know, we didn't do a lot of consultation on. This was Barack Obama's desire and his gut. He obviously ended up writing that speech. And you know, it was a remarkable moment, and we didn't know how it was going to turn out. But I'll never forget him saying, you know, maybe people won't accept this speech and they won't expect my explanation, but you know, that's fine. What's important is that I tell the American people what I believe about this, try and talk about this in some context, maybe this can be an educational moment. And so, what we saw after the Wright speech, was there were still plenty of voters who were concerned about it, obviously, but they all, for the most part, thought that he had handled it like they'd like a leader to, and like few politicians these days seem to.

So it was a wonderful, I think, insight into him. Without that, you know, I think we probably would have gone on to be the Democratic nominee, but we would have been probably more weakened than we were.

GROSS: My guest is David Plouffe, who was Barack Obama's campaign manager. His new memoir is called "The Audacity to Win." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Plouffe, and he was the campaign manager for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He's written a memoir called "The Audacity to Win."

When John Edwards was ready to drop out of the race, he offered to make a deal with the Obama campaign, you know, he'll drop out, but he expected something in return, but he also made it clear that he'd go with Hillary Clinton if she made a better deal. Give us a sense of what happened behind the scenes.

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, this was a conversation with someone who had been a senior member of his campaign team. So whether this person got ahead of Edwards or not, I can't really speak to, but what the representation was, was that, you know, he may get out. If he gets out, you know, he'd like to understand what, possibly, arrangements could be made for the future.

And you know, what we said was listen, Senator, we'd love your support, but you know, we're obviously not going to be locked into any commitments. And you know, I think when President Obama talked to Senator Edwards, the conversation wasn't quite as direct as the one I had with his representation. And our belief was that, you know, even though we were in a fierce contest with Senator Clinton at the time, you know, she, having gone through eight years of the Clinton administration, knew better than most, that you can't make these kind of premature decisions about personnel in an administration.

So we thought at the end of the day it was a fairly bizarre moment, that, you know, we certainly weren't going to offer anything concrete, and we didn't think Senator Clinton would, either. So it was - what was interesting is the Edwards campaign at that point said, you know, they didn't think we could win South Carolina without Edwards' support, and it was interesting. It was a very fundamental misreading of how the South Carolina primary was going to unfold.

GROSS: Let me ask you something that's a little off-topic here. John Corsi, who was one of the leaders of the Swift Boat campaign during the Kerry campaign, he went to - I guess it was, was it Kenya - and tried to dig up information that could be used against Barack Obama. And he found that Barack Obama had a half-brother who was very poor, and he tried to make that seem as if it showed Barack Obama's lack of regard for his own family. And I'm wondering, how did that play inside the Obama campaign? You don't discuss this in the book, but I'm just - I'm really curious.

Mr. PLOUFFE: I don't think we paid a moment of attention to it. I mean, I think it was preposterous, and, you know, I think�

GROSS: What was preposterous?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, the whole notion, you know, that somehow, you know, this reflected poorly on his character. I think that - I think the Republican, sort of that wing of the Republican Party, you know, was so committed at trying to destroy his character. And I think, you know, what's interesting about a presidential campaign is it's a very transparent affair.

Voters take your full measure. You really can't hide who you are. And so we didn't get worried about things like that because we didn't think voters would. You know, I think a lot of times, people in politics make the mistake of doing these kind of inflammatory things because they can get press attention, without thinking first about how are voters going to receive this information. And I think one thing we did well in the campaign was we always keep very focused on voters and the people. You know, what message are we sending to them? And we trusted them.

We thought that they were ready to have a serious discussion about serious issues, and they were. And I think the other side - you know, when the McCain campaign ran ads saying that, you know, Barack Obama is an empty celebrity like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, people didn't have a lot of tolerance for that.

You know, there's plenty of people who said, you know, I'm not sure I'm going to vote for Obama, I've got problems with him, and I disagree with him on issues - but the notion that he's, you know, an empty celebrity like these starlets, it was insulting to people.

GROSS: You focus-grouped that, didn't you, that campaign to see how people would respond, the celebrity campaign?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Yeah, and the media was all, you know, lathering up, thinking it was a great idea by the McCain campaign, and it wasn't working. There were many times during the campaign where, you know, we were seeing the campaign through a different set of eyes than the media was, and I do think the media tends to get really taken by these ads, you know, that are kind of really over the top. They kind of - the media tends to view things through the prism of the last race - oh, Swift-Boating worked last time, it's going to work this time - and I think one of the reasons we, you know, were successful was, you know, we had a blank sheet of paper, and we studied history, but we were not bound by it. And I think that made us a very strong and effective campaign.

GROSS: Now, you write that you expected Hillary Clinton to concede in Minneapolis because you were confident you had the numbers. And as you're expecting her to conceded, and as Barack Obama is preparing to make a speech saying that he's going to be the candidate, Terry McAuliffe, her campaign chair, introduces her as the next president of the United States. Your reaction?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, we were dumbfounded, because it wasn't our belief that we had won. We had been declared the winner by every television network and every newspaper. So it was like we were living in a parallel universe. But you know, within three or four days, she did concede, and you know, I think if you look at our campaign, you know, that was a year-and-a-half contest.

It was brutal, it was tough, it was close. And you know, she didn't take two or three months to kind of get her arms around helping us. She helped us right away and in profound and important ways. And I think it speaks really highly of her character that she so quickly said, you know, the stakes of this election are so high, we can't afford more of the Bush agenda, that's what McCain's offering. And so yeah, that was a night where, you know, we were unhappy, obviously, that it seemed to be that reality wasn't acknowledged, but what's important in the long view is that it was quickly acknowledged, and you know, she became a huge asset in the campaign.

GROSS: She insisted on a meeting before conceding. What happened behind the scenes? What were you negotiating about?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, I think the meeting was both of us wanted to do it. Obviously, the two principals needed to come together and talk about how we were going to move forward, and you know, for the most part, negotiations over the convention and hiring some of her staff and trying to get her volunteers involved in our campaign all went very, very well.

Obviously, she was carrying a debt, and so there was some discussion about how to help with that, and we did what we could, probably not as much as they would have liked, but it's hard thing to do to raise money to erase someone's debt while you're still trying to run a presidential campaign.

But the negotiations, after what we went through - again, kind of looking over the sides of the DMZ for 18 months - went swimmingly well. You know, we - 95 percent of the things in our first conversation were taken care of. And their approach was basically - it was tough, but you guys won, and we cannot allow the Republicans to be in control of the presidency for another four years, so we're going to do all we can.

And her motivation there was very pure. You know, it was not about what was in it for her. It was all about�

GROSS: She didn't ask for a position? She didn't say, and in return, I want to be vice presidential candidate, secretary of state, Supreme Court justice?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Not at all. No, and I was impressed by that. I really think her motivation here was that Barack Obama, his view of the world, his approach to domestic issues, was so far superior to what McCain would do that she just wanted to do all she could to win. It was very impressive. And in fact, you know, when we were getting pressured by some of her supporters to pick her for VP, you know, she went in there very effectively and said, well, wait a minute; this is his decision, his alone. We shouldn't put any pressure on him. And I think that's, again, because she understands, you know, given what she went through with President Clinton, that you know, someone like Barack Obama needed the time and space and atmosphere to make what he believed to be the right decision.

GROSS: So Barack Obama's president now. What are you doing?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well, I am - I wrote the book. I spent a lot of this year writing the book, and I'm going to spend, you know, the next year spending a lot of time with my family, and you know�

GROSS: How come you're not in the administration?

Mr. PLOUFFE: Well strictly for personal reasons. You know, I have young family.

GROSS: You had a baby born, like, two days after the election.

Mr. PLOUFFE: Two days after the election.

GROSS: Amazing.

Mr. PLOUFFE: So you know, in these things, whether it be a campaign or the White House, you know, you're all in. There is no shortcuts. And after two years of the campaign, we needed a couple years to rebalance our lives, and you know, what I told the president is obviously, down the road if he needs my help, I'll be ready in a couple years. But he's got a remarkable team doing remarkable work, and I'm proud to know them and think they're doing great work for America.

GROSS: David Plouffe, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PLOUFFE: Thanks, Terry. Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: David Plouffe was Barack Obama's campaign manager. His new memoir is called "The Audacity to Win." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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