Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Obama runs tight campaign ship"

Ben Smith:
When Barack Obama met with friends and advisers in Washington late last year to begin seriously talking through a presidential campaign, he described the operation he'd like to build.

"He laid out his theory that, if he ran, he wanted to have a campaign with a relatively tight-knit group of people," recalled Michael Froman, a friend from Harvard law school who is now a senior executive at CitiGroup. "No matter how chaotic the campaign got that there'd be — he used the words — 'an island of tranquility.'"
Of course, who wouldn't want an island of tranquility? What's unusual about Obama is that he seems to have gotten his wish — even as he threw together an organization with about 500 employees and a budget of $100 million based in a sprawling, open floor of an office building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

His campaign is unique among the major political organizations this cycle, and unusual in presidential politics, for its apparent unity, and for the fact that virtually none of its internal campaign arguments have spilled over into the press.

That cohesion is a mark of Obama's personal style — "he told us he wanted a drama-free campaign," one staffer recalled — which focuses more on collegiality than on the dynamism of competing views that can drive, or divide, political campaigns.

The campaign's culture is also relevant because Obama for America is the largest organization Obama has ever run.

Aides say he insists on collegiality, and that his tight inner circle — led by his main consultant, David Axelrod, and campaign manager David Plouffe, who had been Axelrod's business partner — has not faced serious internal challenges for power.

Unity can sometimes be brittle, and tension can be dynamic — Bill Clinton's winning campaigns were famously fractious — but many observers view the sheer functionality of Obama's organization as an unexpected success.

"It's a sign of strength," said Bob Shrum, the top adviser to Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004 and no stranger to internal strife, who recalled that the brief respite in that campaign's public infighting came when things were going well.

The Obama campaign's structure stems in part from early decisions to hire professional political operatives largely from circles around people Obama already knew, including his Senate chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and campaign manager Plouffe.

Veterans of congressional leadership, Rouse and Plouffe hired people they knew from earlier campaigns. And while the Obama campaign describes itself as a movement, it is staffed largely by political professionals.

"It's not evangelical like the Dean campaign, or anything like that," said an aide. "It's a bunch of campaign operatives, most of which didn't graduate from the Clinton campaigns, who all believe that we can do things in a different way."

The fact that the candidates' advisers aren't letting their arguments spill over into the press might seem banal, but consider his rivals.

On the Democratic side, John Edwards turned to a charismatic outsider, Joe Trippi, who swept in in April, elbowing aside existing advisers and putting his own aides into place. The Clinton campaign has been characterized by years' long, creative tension on the question of how much she should be humanized, and by outside sniping from former aides to President Bill Clinton, like James Carville.

Among the leading Republicans, Sen. John McCain's campaign fell into outright civil war in July, and one of his closest advisers was forced out. Mitt Romney saw an argument, reported by Politico, over whether or not to air an attack ad. Rudy Giuliani's campaign is seen by reporters as having Washington and New York camps; Fred Thompson's has pitted his wife, Jeri, against a series of advisers.

The Obama campaign's discipline was tested most intensely in the late summer and early fall, when major donors to the campaign pressed the candidate to begin attacking the front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A New York Times article in October cited anonymous "aides" 11 times, who reported on low morale in the Chicago headquarters and their concern that the candidate "might be spending too much time reading blogs and newspaper clippings."

Still, though political consultants often lose their jobs in hard times, Axelrod's place was secure.

"No one was talking in August or September, 'let's shake up the campaign leadership,'" Froman said.

And when the campaign hired an aide to improve its rapid response operation, it was another Axelrod partner, John Del Cecato.

Now Obama is in a position to mount a serious challenge to Clinton.

He's winning in some polls in the crucial state of Iowa. He may not win, but he escaped the crippling tales of internal division that have handicapped campaigns like his in the past.

At a finance committee meeting in Des Moines this fall, Obama soothed donors' nerves, and defended the choices he and his staff made.

"When you signed up for this you didn't think it was going to be an easy ride," he said, according to Julius Genachowski, another law school friend and former Clinton administration official who was there. Obama continued, "Listen, it's going to be bumpy, there's going to be turbulence. If you need me to sit next to you on the plane and hold your hand, I will. But I hope you won't need that, because we have a lot of work to do and we can win this."



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