In a new memoir, The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 race for the White House, provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse inside the campaign. Here’s an excerpt.Agony. Ecstasy.
The [Rev. Jeremiah] Wright story broke on a Wednesday and exploded across the media landscape the next day. We decided Obama had to take questions about [his former pastor’s inflammatory sermons] head-on on Friday, in a series of lengthy national cable interviews.
There was one not-so-minor complication. He was already scheduled to do editorial boards that Friday afternoon with both Chicago papers about [real estate developer and political fundraiser] Tony Rezko, two hours each, no holds barred. Given no choice but to address Wright as soon as possible, we decided we would do a round of TV interviews on him directly after the Rezko boards. It shaped into quite a day, like having your legs amputated in the morning and your arms at night. The question was whether we would still have a heartbeat at the end of the day.
It was chaos and, quite frankly, frightening. I felt as if the wheels could easily spin off our whole venture. Still, Obama was the pillar of reassurance. “Don’t worry, guys,” he told us while making some notes on a stack of pages. “I can do more than one thing at a time. We are taking the trash out today. It won’t be fun, but we’ll be stronger for it.”
Obama handled everything with brilliance. The editorial boards, though grueling, went well. Obama called me after 11 that night, while my wife and son were sleeping. “So we survived. But it feels really unsatisfying to me and I’m sure to voters … I think I need to give a speech on race and how Wright fits into that. Whether people will accept it or not, I don’t know. But I don’t think we can move forward until I try.”
Obama had raised giving a race speech back in the fall. At the time, [chief strategist David] Axelrod and I strenuously disagreed, believing that we should not inject into the campaign an issue that for the most part was not on voters’ minds. Now we were in a much different situation. I agreed that a traditional political move the damage-control interviews we had done that night would not be enough. But a speech was fraught with peril. If it was off-key, it could compound our problems.
He said he was calling Axelrod and that after they spoke, he wanted me to call Ax and then conference him in; the three of us would make a decision. “I don’t want a big meeting or conference call on this,” he told me. “You and Ax and I will arbitrate this. But know this is what I think I need to do, so I’ll need an awfully compelling argument not to give this speech. And I think it needs to be delivered in the early part of next week and I need to write most of it.”
Axelrod and I spoke a few minutes later and quickly decided we were in uncharted waters. There was no playbook for how to handle something like this. It had never been done. “He really wants to give this speech,” I concluded. “And I don’t have a better idea. Do you”
“Nope,” said Ax. He began to fret about the real-world problems of constructing the most important speech of our candidacy largely on the fly, when I interrupted: “Look, let’s call him and walk through it,” I said. “We’ll do the speech, but he has to own the reality of the time constraints.”
We conferenced Barack in. “So” he asked. “What’s the deal” We told him we agreed with the speech but that it was going to be hard to put it together.
“Tonight is Friday well, Saturday morning,” I said. “We have to give this speech no later than Tuesday. You have a full schedule in Pennsylvania the next three days. It has already been publicized. If we start canceling events, it will fuel the impression that we’re panicked and our candidacy is on the rocks.”
Watch a video of Obama at inauguration.
Watch a video of Obama’s last days on the campaign trail.