on January 13, 2010
I confess, I was looking for something more colorful, something about the back stage frustrations and conflict and silliness and fun that must happen between the rallies. I wanted more perspective on how the insiders were dealing with the campaign on an emotional level. And though Plouffe touches on a few moments, that's not his focus. This book is about the marketing and selling of a candidate to the electorate and the number-crunching that goes along with that. Plouffe admits that he's not a great writer -- maybe when Axelrod gets back into private life he'll have time to write from his perspective and maybe he'll be more comfortable with the medium. But Plouffe is not. There is a repetition of points, the dialog is awkward and stilted, there are typos, there is at times too much emphasis on the strategy and tactics. And I agree with others, it suffers for not having an index. Even though Plouffe addresses the omission, I still found myself turning to the back of the book several times.
This is not a tell all, this is not a "what the butler saw". He's careful because some of the players in the election are now players in the WH and really, for the purposes of this book, there's no need to stir up a hornet's nest by slinging old grievances. But if you followed the campaign and were impressed by it, the historic nature, the ups and downs, the high drama, I can't think why you wouldn't at least peruse this book. It's not the last word on the story, but it's certainly an important one.
on November 5, 2009
Barack Obama's historic 2007-2008 campaign was the result of an amazing confluence of innovations rarely seen in American (or world's) politics. Much has been said and written about Obama, starting with his own two autobiographical books (Dreams of My Father, The Audacity of Hope), but the insiders radiography of the nuts and bolts that made his triumph possible is just starting with this book.
Obama's campaign was a dead serious, highly disciplined, relentless and, yes, innovative effort that took into account simple but oftenly ignored details on the mechanics of the Democratic primary and the general election, and David Plouffe's book can be read not only as a thrilling memoir of those two years. This is also a candid account of a trailblazing effort, a sort of 'how to' manual for conducting a succesful campaign in the new context of American politics. I'm sure that Republican political operatives, in stark contrast to some of the previsible one star reviewers here, are reading this book with careful attention. If not, they should.
Obama's triumph was not only the result of a charismatic and articulate candidate with a passion for words and the empathy to understand the needs and desires of the people. Behind the stage, far from the podium, a political operation was patiently constructing a web of volunteers who, knocking doors and using Internet and new media at its fullest, outmaneuvered Senator Clinton first, and after her, Senator McCain.
While Obama was inspiring people all across America with his "Yes we can" calling, David Plouffe (and David Axelrod) were conducting the down-to-earth side of this "unique mixture of idealism and pragmatism" (author's words in the Epilogue) and translating it into an organizational structure based in simple but essential electoral and mathematical considerations that guaranteed Obama's capacity to triumph in different scenarios. Make no mistakes about it: the pen is mightier than the sword, indeed, but behind Obama's powerful (s)words there was always a connection with the hard realities of a succesful presidential campaign. And that, in my opinion, is what David Plouffe's book is about.
on November 13, 2009
There's a story here. To listen to it, six-guns need to be checked in at door to the saloon, swords need to be sheathed, brass knuckles stuck in a back pocket. It's a story that fans of American democracy need to hear, whether they view the end of the story as a tragedy of cosmic proportion, or a victory unparalleled in American political history. Right, left, libertarian, communist, fascist, socialist, anarchist, even outright kooks, have to admit that something rare happened here: a relatively young man with a name that strikes post 9/11 willies into many, born of a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father, rises out of poverty, succeeds in school despite some misadventures with drugs, uses a crackpot minister for spiritual guidance, has a very brief career as a politician, and then sets out to win the presidency of the U.S. of A. His obstacles to the goal are huge, including overcoming racial prejudice, and even more importantly, overcoming the combined might of the two Clintons and their enormously potent political allies. It makes me think of a newbie hiker standing at the base camp of Everest, clad in flip-flops, t-shirt and shorts, and saying "Yeah, I think I can climb that thing." And then having the audacity to do it.
David Plouffe's The Audacity to Win tells the tale of Obama's rise to the presidency from before the decision to run had even been made to Inauguration Day on 1/20/09. Plouffe's reaction to news that he and David Axelrod have a meeting scheduled in early November 2006 with Barack Obama to discuss a potential run at the presidency was a two word response: "[...].". Exhausted from a congressional campaign, Plouffe resignedly agrees, convinced that the meeting would be both the first and last meeting on the topic. The rest, as the reader knows, is history. What the reader may not know is what history looks like from the inside of a truly improbable campaign.
Clearly, the Obama campaign vehicle started down the road to the presidency with a powerful engine that was fueled by a high-octane mix of novelty, weariness of the war in Iraq, Barack's own charisma, and deep distrust of the Bush administration. But when the two front tires named Pastor Wright and Mark Rezko blew out, one back tire blew out with Obama's tasteless remark on people turning to guns and religion when they feel insecurity, and with Hillary Clinton stabbing furiously at the one remaining tire with her 3 AM phone call/lack of experience dagger, what was it that kept the campaign grinding relentlessly forward? Plouffe comments "...we knew who we were. The two main pillars of the campaign--the message and electoral strategy--were firmly established and not up for debate, which meant that we could focus on execution. We made decisions quickly and grounded in clear and consistent principles. That is especially important when there is a chorus of critics hollering at you to change course." Compare this to the gyrations, infighting, and confusion of Hillary's Nightmare on Rodham-Clinton Street, or the fascinating but disconcerting moves of the McCain campaign. And finally, states Plouffe, "We threw long".
The sheer mind-numbing, body-destroying rigor of a presidential campaign is clearly portrayed in The Audacity to Win. What drove Axelrod, Plouffe, and hundreds of thousands volunteers to near fanatical devotion to their candidate? It wasn't allegiance to the Democratic party, rather it appeared to be devotion to Obama himself. States Plouffe "(Obama) always preferred policy to politics, and I began to further appreciate his ability to stay very calm during a crisis, his efforts to stay one step ahead of the situation, and his hunger for information. I mentioned this to Axelrod. `You know, we better win this thing,' I told him. `I think our country needs this guy to stay afloat." And Axelrod responds "He's the smartest person I've ever met, and displays some of the best leadership qualities I've ever witnessed." If, reading this, you feel like reaching for a spoon to gag yourself with, you miss the point: improbable victories require that the candidate's followers deeply believe in their man/woman. Which made it possible for the campaign to go to Obama's followers again and again for donations, smashing all previous fund raising totals. Which didn't hurt the campaign a bit.
What have Plouffe and Axelrod wrought? I attended one of the infamous health care initiative town hall meetings in Prineville, Oregon, and the majority opinion there was that these two skilled political operators have wrought unmitigated disaster for the nation. Plouffe, in closing, describes things from a different perspective. On the Sunday before Inauguration, a concert was held in front of the Lincoln Memorial. While everyone else is focused on the entertainers, Plouffe observes Obama staring up at the gigantic seated figure of Abraham Lincoln. Plouffe asks Obama "Before you spoke today, were you looking up at Lincoln?" Obama responds "Very observant, Plouffe. It was emotional to be speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, given all the history involved. Reading the inscriptions reminded me of the weight of this office through history. It helped me gather myself. For all of our challenges, we've faced greater. Lincoln had to save the Union." Obama paused. "So I also asked `ol Abe for wisdom and judgment and patience. We'll need it."
A young African-American president stares up at the long dead Great Emancipator, asking for wisdom. I was not three hundred yards from this scene when it took place, standing next to an eighty year old African-American woman who, with tears running down her face, spontaneously grabbed a total stranger (me) and hugged him. Read all about how such a thing came to happen in Plouffe's competently (not brilliantly) written book, The Audacity to Win.
on August 24, 2010
David Plouffe is undeniably a brilliant man. Along with Axelrod and the rest of the crew, he took an underdog to the top. However, his brilliance is not quite reflected in this account. Inherently, since Obama is still in office, he is not able to say certain things and there is a sense when reading the book that he is holding a lot back. Also, there are several parts of the book where he recounts a story that happened during the campaign - very interesting reading. Yet, a majority of the book is him just rambling about his own success. He often admits to things that he did wrong during the campaign, but nothing is significant. Once again he is holding something back. Definitely worth a read if you would like to hear Obama's side of how he got elected, but not written all that interestingly.
on November 5, 2009
Plouffe's story shines with the candor and goodwill that infused the Obama campaign. I wanted the story, having volunteered briefly in a local campaign office. In that time I wondered who and how had made this all look so easy. I walked into a phone bank that had a row of phones and seats, but not nearly enough for all the volunteers who wanted to help. No problem, around the room in wicker baskets on the floor were piles of cell phones. If the desks were all taken, just grab a chair and a cell phone and here's a call list and thank you very much and would you like refreshments? By the time I dropped in, the campaign workers had weary, red-rimmed eyes and tottered with fatigue but each one gave whole, full attention and help to the tourist volunteers. I wound up working near a family whose 14-year-old daughter was making calls. Me on Medicare. The young volunteer told me this was the way politics should me. Boy Howdy!!
Plouffe's story is well-written and readable. I read it thinking that it's textbook now for underdog campaigns. I thought about who else will be reading this account and what will they be thinking. The candidate's character and values governed his choices of associates and many campaign decisions. So, it's a textbook for others only if they can find such a candidate or such values for public life.
I can see the organizational details can be useful to other parties and candidates yet I do not see that they can account for the response of voters to the candidate. Beginning with the convention speech in 2004, so many people already knew that this country needed this voice and this vision, this person.
Still, however easy the campaign may have looked to those of us observing from the outside, it apparently was a white-knuckle adventure all the way from within. Who knew that the candidate would command such a response?
The nation is blessed with this in our history and the reader with Plouffe's candor and confidence.
on March 6, 2016
Plouffe wrote this account of the epic 2008 campaign soon after Obama won. His business partner David Axelrod wrote an account of this campaign in 2015 (BELIEVER). The two books nicely complement each other. Both report key events and crises. Plouffe was the manager, responsible for strategy, fundraising, recruiting staff and volunteers, fixing budgets and staff for each state operation, scheduling Obama's events. Axelrod was responsible for helping Obama convey his message and idealism. Message discipline was based on the belief "that voters were actually hungry to have an adult conversation about the issues." (323)
Plouffe emphasizes his unconventional strategy, which was often disparaged by political leaders. He aimed to build a grassroots campaign rather than attend lots of Party events and lobby politicians for endorsements. He and his staff recruited millions of volunteers and small donors. Plouffe credits them with winning the election for Obama by bringing in millions of new voters. Unprecedented use of digital media was key -- the campaign regularly shared information by email with millions of supporters, while mainstream media often missed the real story by focusing on polls, squabbles, the "horse race." Plouffe was astounded at the amount of money raised online. It was vital. He repeats several times "money matters" in political races. Obama's money was clean, lots of small donors. Obama made the difficult decision to opt out of the federal finance system -- created by reformers -- because it was "broken" -- big money had figured out how to do an end run.
This nuts and bolts picture of ground-level politics is exciting and much more inspiring than what TV and talk shows give us. Plouffe and Axelrod describe a politics we can believe in. They may inspire you to volunteer for a political campaign.