Podcast Interview: Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe

Nov 11, 2009 2:08pm

On our Political Punch Podcast this week we interviewed former Obama for America campaign manager David Plouffe, who we reached in San Francisco on his book tour for his campaign memoir “The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory.” 

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes or my clicking HERE. The podcast is produced by Huma Khan.

We touched on a number of subjects he writes about – some of which we have covered in this blog before –  but one of the biggest confessions of the book was Plouffe’s admission of a “systemic failure” to deal with the issue of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright “properly.”

Writes Plouffe: “I still kick myself for how terribly we mishandled our internal Wright work… We had done zero research on our own candidate beyond a small and incomplete package from the 2004 Senate race… We never raised with Obama the idea of leaving the church, or discussed with him any detail of how we would respond if inflammatory statements were to emerge. We were in denial."

I asked Plouffe today if racial sensitivities may have been part of the reason.

“I don’t think so,” Plouffe said. “This is more of a personal — I’m a Catholic, a lot of us have heard things, not this inflammatory, I don’t want to compare the two and I want to make that very clear — but you know, the notion that… it’s hard to be responsible for everything, you know, your pastor or your priest says. I think if anything, it was that.”

Plouffe said “it was naive of us, given the toxicity of some of these statements and the notion that again, we live in a video age that when they exploded online or on TV – I think they first really exploded in the consciousness on your network. It was a big mistake and listen, as I write in the book, I do think that the political playbook – obviously one doesn’t exist – but I think generally, you know, you’re taught not to elevate things like this and we, obviously, by giving the speech in Philadelphia elevated it but in retrospect, the president’s decision to give that speech and obviously the speech he wrote helped us navigate rocky waters and that obviously did not end the threats. Wright bothered people all the way through. It was one of these moments, even today with our fractured media world where, you know, a 100 percent of the people had seen then, most everybody had seen his speech, and so people could kind of make their own judgment.”

I asked if it would have been better for the Obama campaign to have gotten all the Wright information out early and on its own terms or if that would have more likely have resulted in his never winning the Iowa caucuses – and thus in all likelihood never winning the nomination. (At least according to Plouffe’s own navigated course for then-Sen. Obama, which required an Iowa win.)

“This is all Monday morning quarterbacking,” Plouffe said, “potentially we could have dealt with this more on our own terms and you know, I think that probably would’ve been advisable. You just don’t know. There’s no doubt that by the time Wright came out, we were deep into the campaign, but I think whenever Wright kind of blew on the scene like this, it was going to be a major challenge. If we had been kind of better prepared, potentially chose a path like you’ve suggested, it might not have been as explosive a thing that dominated the campaign for weeks. It’s tough to know.”

Plouffe writes honestly about several of Obama’s primary opponents, including two who are major players in his administration: Secretary of State Clinton and Vice President Biden.

Was that tough?

“It was one of the hardest parts of writing the book,” Plouffe said, “and I don’t think it would’ve been honest of me at all to write a book that doesn’t capture a lot of the intensity of the primary…. Because listen, the main reason why I decided to write the book, was encouraged to do so, was that – and this is a humbling thing to say – but this is a moment — whether you supported the president or not – it’s not your kind of run-of-the-mill election victory. It is a moment in American history, or at least political history and to capture something that will stand the test of time. And so I did feel some obligation to be candid so I think what I do, and I believe this by the end, as hard as that campaign was, my admiration for her and others in the campaign grew because it was remarkable that when the odds were so stacked against her in those last let’s say three months, she was so effective and I write that Barack Obama was better than his campaign, no doubt, and I think that she was, by leaps and bounds.”

As for Biden, Plouffe wrote rather unsparingly of his first vetting meeting with the loquacious Blue Hen, saying that Biden began by "launching into a nearly 20-minute monologue that ranged from the strength of our campaign in Iowa ('I literally wouldn't have run if I knew the steamroller you guys would put together'); to his evolving views of Obama ('I wasn't sure about him in the beginning of the campaign, but I am now'); why he didn't want to be VP ('The last thing I should do is VP; after 36 years of being the top dog, it will be hard to be No. 2'); why he was a good choice ('But I would be a good soldier and could provide real value, domestically and internationally'); and everything else under the sun. Ax and I couldn't get a word in edgewise. It confirmed what we suspected: this dog could not be taught new tricks.”

Says Plouffe in our podcast: “The point there is he is who we thought he was and we liked who he was, with some reservations but you kinda knew what you were getting. I think that first of all, this was an important part of our selection process. The president was focused first on someone standing beside him in the Oval Office, less the campaign, and that kind of he’s clearly a very frank person and that’s what Obama values, so that really appealed to him. And we thought in the campaign that we were big believers in authenticity and sure, there might be a day or two where he colors outside the lines, but people generally would be impressed by him, and they were. By the end of the campaign, his numbers in the battleground states were terrific.”

We also talked about the Summer 2007 doldrums when Obama on the stump was just horrible, Obama’s decision making process – which often lends itself to missed deadlines – the state of political coverage, his personally most wrenching moment during the campaign, and more.

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes or my clicking HERE.

– jpt


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