Obama's 2008 Campaign Manager: The President 'Does Not Overreact to Political Fury'

David Plouffe was the man behind the scenes of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE he explained why governing is more difficult than campaigning -- and dubbed Obama's rousing campaign speech in Berlin an "audacious gamble."

The good old days: Barack Obama addressing euphoric crowds in Berlin during his presidential campaign. Zoom
REUTERS

The good old days: Barack Obama addressing euphoric crowds in Berlin during his presidential campaign.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You helped get Barack Obama elected president under the slogan "Change We Can Believe In." A year later, it would seem that he needs a new slogan. Do you agree?

David Plouffe: No. He has delivered on the things he campaigned on. Just look at middle-class tax cuts or the expansion of stem cell research. Other issues still need a little time. But President Obama does not overreact to the political fury of the moment and I think that serves the country well.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But even many supporters don't see much change they can believe in. Guantanamo is still open, tens of thousands more troops will be sent to Afghanistan, climate change legislation is stalled. The health care debate is a mess.

Plouffe: On Afghanistan, I still have to question which campaign these people watched because candidate Obama was very clear on his determination to continue the mission there. He was also very clear on his kind of health care proposal. It is easy to be impatient and throw darts. But I find that pretty uninformed and unhelpful.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, it would seem that the transition from the long, tough campaign to the presidency was more difficult than expected.

Plouffe: The presidency is not a continuation of the campaign. Look at health care: As president, you are not trying to simply get 50 percent of the American people to vote for your plan. I wish we were. But governing is more complex.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Obama's team also seems to have had difficulties establishing in the White House some of the modern techniques used during the campaign. You set up "Organizing for America," a 13 million member online organization -- but the activity level has not been particularly encouraging.

Plouffe: A lot of new people have signed up since the election. It is a great thing to be able to send out an e-mail and reach 13 million people. The level of activism is not as high as during the campaign but we have many people making calls for health care reform or other issues. That is an important part of succeeding.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Former Vice President Al Gore mused in a SPIEGEL interview that Obama might be making too many television appearances. Are Americans tired of seeing him in prime time?

Plouffe: As president, you also get criticized for under-exposure when you are out there less. Americans want to see their leader, particularly in a time of crisis. Overexposure is obviously something you need to monitor, but I think so far there is no real risk. It is still less than a year for Obama in the White House and we continue to learn a lot about him and what exactly he wants to do.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book on the campaign you called Obama's campaign trip to Berlin in 2007 an "audacious gamble." Why?

Plouffe: The whole trip was risky. Putting on an overseas visit when you are a head of state is hard enough. As a campaign we did not have diplomatic resources. Obviously, he had to perform at a high level, for instance with the speech in Berlin. If you trip once, you pay an outsized penalty.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And the trip was criticized.

Plouffe: The Republican candidate John McCain said that he would rather be with 10,000 bikers in the US than with 200,000 screaming people in Berlin and he compared Obama to starlets like Britney Spears. But that misread where the American electorate was. They were hungry for a leader who could have a better and stronger relationship with a country like Germany.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Even if that is seen as being overly "European" in the US?

Plouffe: Americans don't see Berlin like they do Paris, which might seem a little bit too "socialist." That made it a little easier for us to have a public event there. All the way through to Election Day, we heard people refer to the speech and the foreign policy vision Obama outlined in Berlin.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What did you think when 200,000 people showed up?

Plouffe: We simply did not know what to expect. We were used to putting on rallies in Pittsburgh or Miami. We thought we would get a minimum of 10,000, but the turnout greatly surpassed our expectations. There was real excitement on the ground, it looked great on TV -- and the speech itself, in which Obama called himself "a citizen of the world," was important. The American electorate was ready for that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Chancellor Angela Merkel was upset that Obama initially planned to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the site where Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Did you understand her concerns?

Plouffe: We never seriously planned to hold the speech there. There were some advance people who were very interested in the location. But given the history, we didn't think it was an appropriate site. The controversy about it was unfortunate; it spun out of control.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When Germans saw the excitement about Obama in Berlin, they wondered: Where is the German Barack Obama? Any advice for German politicians?

Plouffe: Campaigns can't just be transferred by clicking a mouse. But ours showed a few things that can be carried over into other countries: You need a comprehensive digital strategy that is at the core of your campaign. Secondly, you need to involve the people in your campaign and create a grassroots campaign. Obama also really talked to voters like adults. Commentators criticized him for not having enough snappy sound bites or for explaining things too much. But voters in this past US election were very anxious to have a serious debate. That is our key lesson: You can win that way.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could the Republicans pull off something similar in 2012?

Plouffe: They have decided to block everything. There might be a few Republicans who help out on health care at the end of the day. But overall they are the party of No.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Obama promised to change the partisan culture of Washington. Was that nave?

Plouffe: The Republicans could have chosen that path. But look at some of the stuff they said about health care reform: death panels, etc. Figures like Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh are having a huge influence on the Republican Party now. The things they say are irresponsible, highly political and a huge mistake. Voters are going to see very soon that the things they were told about health care are not going to happen. A Palin candidacy would be a disaster for the Republican Party.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Speaking of hard feelings, you fought Hillary Clinton aggressively in the primaries and you criticized her for staying in the race for so long. Have you had a talk with her since?

Plouffe: We haven't spoken since the campaign ended. But I think she is doing an outstanding job as Secretary of State.

The interview was conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington, D.C.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
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About David Plouffe
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David Plouffe, 42, led Barack Obama's presidential campaign. On the night when he won the election, Obama called Plouffe a "hero" who was not given nearly enough credit. It is expected that Plouffe will also run Obama's campaign for re-election in 2012. Plouffe lives with his family in Washington D.C. and works as a consultant. His book, "The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory," was just published by Viking.


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