David Plouffe on the Audacious Presidential Campaign of 2008

During a flight leg in April, [campaign press secretary Robert] Gibbs tried to have a heart-to-heart with Obama. "Are you having any fun at all?" he asked him.

"None," Obama flatly replied.

"Do you see any way we can make it more fun?" Gibbs replied.


So writes President Obama's former campaign manager, David Plouffe, of the joyless dog days that often infuse an arduous campaign, as was the 21-month ordeal that commenced long before the first snowflakes fell in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"It was unrelenting and hard. It was in the months of April and May. That's when the drudgery kicks in," Plouffe tells the Daily RFT. "Obama was missing his family and still trying to get acclimated to this hectic pace."

During a telephone interview yesterday to discuss his book, The Audacity to Win -- a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the controlled mayhem of last year's race to the White House --  Plouffe concedes that Hillary Clinton added to the frustration by refusing to surrender, even when the delegate math was all but insurmountable.

Hillary Clinton after the New York state primary in 2008. - http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingthedeepfield/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingthedeepfield/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Hillary Clinton after the New York state primary in 2008.
"But you know, we began to have a glowing, grudging admiration for her," remembers Plouffe. "She got better and better on the campaign trail."

Plouffe writes that he often thought Clinton was deluded, living "in an alternate universe." And yet she remained on Obama's short-list of VP contenders right to end.

"At our next meeting, we narrowed the list down to six. Barack continued to be intrigued by Hillary. 'I still think Hillary has a lot of what I am looking for,' he said to us. 'Smarts, discipline, steadfastness.'"

But, Bill Clinton's bad-sport behavior, particularly after his wife's bittter loss in South Carolina, threw a monkey wrench into those plans.

"At the end of the day, Obama decided that there were just too many complications outweighing the political strengths ... On the evening of August 17, he called Ax (David Axelrod) and and me with the news. 'I've decided,' he said. 'It's Biden.'"

For the many political addicts who followed every drumbeat of the 2008 contest, Plouffe's inside story reveals nothing particularly new or illuminating about Obama's grinding ride to glory. Still, it is a breathless read, refreshing the memory of just what an astonishing feat Obama & Co. pulled off.

A talented political strategist and wizard at delegate math, Plouffe -- who during the campaign "wore the wired and haunted look of a marathoner bleeding in his shoes," as The New Yorker's David Remnick recently wrote of him -- says his most euphoric moment came on the wintry January night when Obama won the Iowa Caucus.

"We were giddy winning Iowa, and we had five days of that euphoria, then lost in New Hampshire, which was our lowest moment. We were devastated," says Plouffe.

Throughout the book, Obama is portrayed as cool, calm and collected. Asked if really was, and at all times, Plouffe replied, "Yes, he was. That's just who he is. He's actually a very normal human being, which made our job easier."

​John McCain's "ill-considered" choice of Sarah Palin, writes Plouffe, was "a bolt of lightning, a true surprise."

Sarah Palin in St. Louis last year, after the vice presidential debate in St. Louis. See more photos here - Photo: Lyle Whitworth
Photo: Lyle Whitworth
Sarah Palin in St. Louis last year, after the vice presidential debate in St. Louis. See more photos here

He adds, "We knew it was going to look and smell very political, and fly in the face of the experience card he was always playing."

Plouffe says McCain made at least two critical mistakes. First, the days after the September 15 collapse of Lehman Brothers, the so-called maverick said, "The fundamentals of our economy are strong."

The second major blunder was his announcement that he was suspending his campaign and pulling out of the first debate on September 26 in Oxford, Mississippi, in order to remain in Washington to help with bailout legislation.

"That made him look very unsteady," posits Plouffe.

In the book, Plouffe -- who will appear for a reading and Q & A session at the St. Louis County Library (1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd.) this Friday, begining at 7 p.m. -- recreates one of Obama's finest moments:

"Presidents need to be able to do more than one thing at a time...That clip played over and over next to McCain suggesting postponement. We looked strong, confident and steady. McCain looked erratic and a bit desperate."
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