'The Audacity To Win' The Presidency

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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."

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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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.