Obama Campaign Head Jim Messina Changing Gears

Nov 20, 2012 12:58pm

gty jim messina jef 121120 wblog Obama Campaign Head Jim Messina Changing Gears

The man who ran President Obama’s campaign spoke publicly for the first time since Election Day, declaring that he probably won’t return to Obama’s White House, where he worked for two years before the 2012 race began.

“I’m gonna go to Italy and hang out,” Messina told Politico’s Mike Allen onstage at a breakfast event hosted by Politico in downtown Washington, D.C., divulging plans for a month-long vacation.

“The one thing I know is that I want to be involved in some way helping this president move his agenda forward, and that’s what I’ll do, but here’s the truth. I’ve been going at this now for five years,” Messina said. “I’ve taken one week vacation in five years, and so it is time to restore my energy. the president and I were joking recently about how bad I look, and it is time to take a vacation.”

Messina may have been the engine of the Obama campaign, but he wasn’t its face. Seldom seen during the election year, Messina’s most public endeavor was a three-and-a-half-minute YouTube video, posted in December 2011, in which he laid out Barack Obama’s “electoral map,” dissecting how the president could win 270 Electoral College votes by picking up various sets of states.

The video made news–it was the first public glimpse into the campaign’s geographic thinking, what states it thought it could win, and where its resources might be deployed–but it was a wonky affair: Messina’s co-star was a white slab of foam-board, perched on an easel beside him in a windowless office at Obama for America headquarters.

Messina appeared in a handful of similarly wonky YouTube videos geared toward supporters, like this April 2011 strategy briefing, in which the bespectacled Messina sat behind an Apple laptop, and this electoral-map and fundraising update, but he was rarely seen on TV.

Instead, his deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, became Obama for America’s front-and-center personality, gaining YouTube stardom for a series of matter-of-fact fact-checking videos calling out falsehoods in TV ads run by Mitt Romney’s campaign and the GOP super PAC American Crossroads. A few of those “falsehoods” were disputed, and, like every fact-check, Cutter’s videos were just the entrance to the rabbit-hole–but they allowed Cutter to celebritize her direct, argumentative style as a campaign-year brand, and they regularly topped hundreds of thousands of views, while Messina’s clicked in the low tens of thousands. She also became the campaign’s primary surrogate on TV, appearing on Sunday talk shows to do battle with the likes of Romney strategist Kevin Madden.

Messina, meanwhile, stayed behind the scenes–a place with which he was familiar after serving as deputy White House chief of staff under Rahm Emanuel and his larger-than-life persona, and staying on in that role after Emanuel’s departure in 2010.

Today, he bracketed those early YouTube videos with an actual live appearance, after engineering what has quickly become regarded as the most advanced political campaign in history, celebrated for its historically large and detailed data operation, its equally large and detail-oriented door-knocking and voter-contact effort, and the way Messina structured his team to integrate the two with a strategic focus on individualized voter targeting.

Messina downplayed all that, saying “it’s all about the candidate,” while at the same time acknowledging that future campaigns will learn something from what he did at Obama for America.

“Campaigns are going to go back to the past,” Messina said, with a renewed focus on door-knocking and talking to voters and less reliance on TV ads to turn out votes and spread a message. “It’s harder to reach people, but there’s a magical place where you can reach every single voter–and that’s at the door.”

Messina’s advice for the next guy: “I think whoever has my job next should blow it up and run their own campaign”–just like Messina says he did with the 2008 operation. Messina says he told Obama, when the president hired him to run his reelection effort, to “Promise me it won’t be [exactly] like 2008.”   The president was puzzled why the 2008 campaign that had put him in the White House shouldn’t be repeated–but Messina said he knew Obama for America would have to adapt to succeed.

So what has he been doing, after re-engineering the epic 2008 Obama machine, and what’s next?

“Drinking beer,” for one thing, he told Politico’s Mike Allen, who interviewed him before a small crowd of journalists and Washington mucketies at the W Hotel, a block away from the Treasury. Since the election, he’s been in Montana–the state he served in Congress as chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. “I actually did this amazing thing called sleeping,” Messina said.

Messina said he wants to help Obama press his second-term agenda, just not from inside the White House.

“I’ve done that, I was the deputy chief of staff for the president the first two years and got to work on health care, and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and some things I cared very deeply about,” Messina said. “I think my future is probably outside the White House, helping him and becoming a part of whatever happens to our social movement to help advocate for his agenda.”

The future of Obama for America remains murky. After 2008, Obama folded his campaign into the Democratic National Committee, branding it as “Organizing for America” and hiring its own dedicated staff to push Obama’s first-term legislative agenda. In some ways, the effort fizzled, but it allowed the DNC to stay in touch with Obama’s 13-million-strong 2008 supporter list. And it did generate some energy behind Obama’s early initiatives. “I think it’s clear health care wouldn’t have passed without that decision,” Messina said on Tuesday.

Something like that could be in the cards for after 2012, but the president is no longer a candidate for office, and his campaign effort can’t continue as such. Messina said OFA will consult its supporters and likely make a decision before Obama’s inauguration in January.

“I think anything’s possible,” Messina. The one thing about which Messina seems certain is that Obama for America is uniquely about Obama.

“You can’t just hand this to the next candidate for president,” Messina said of the massive, and massively successful, organization he helped design and build. “Those people were involved because of the issues and positions that the president took.”

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