Obama Learns From Past Dem Missteps

CHICAGO — When Barack Obama looks out at the Democrats assembled in Denver this week, he'll see a handful of party luminaries who sought the White House before him: Al Gore, John F. Kerry, Howard Dean, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

They'll be publicly lauded, of course, as revered elder statesmen and integral players in the party’s present. But Obama has run a campaign that views each in decidedly different terms: as cautionary tales, examples of an old politics to be avoided at all costs.

Obama’s campaign, staffed by veterans and close observers of past Democratic efforts, has focused on avoiding many of the pitfalls of campaigns past — the internal dramas, the charges of inauthenticity and the dramatic promises that masked organizational chaos.

After decades of party musings about a different kind of Democrat, Obama has actually run a seminally different campaign — one steeped in a decade of Democratic failure and ambivalence toward the successes of the Clinton years.

Aides say that in many ways, he had no choice — that the very audacity of Obama's historic candidacy freed him to mount an effort that pays little or no attention to the standard Democratic narrative. Senior aides say it was clear from the beginning of the primary season that voters would either accept him on his own terms — a young black man with an unusual, if inspiring, story — or they would reject him. He couldn't be shoehorned into the familiar categories, and there was no use trying.


And so the campaign was driven by a series of unconventional choices. They took a Howard Dean-style movement and turned it into a bureaucracy managed by old political hands. They ignored the early handwringing of donors and the Washington media. And they viewed leaks and internal drama as a profound threat.

"Obama and [chief strategist David] Axelrod are clearly aware of what past campaigns did right — and what they did wrong," said Bob Shrum, an architect of the Kerry and Gore campaigns.

Obama's primary victory left his aides confident that they will succeed where predecessors failed. The Chicago brain trust is also willing to resist another round of Beltway concern about whether he's moved fast enough to define John McCain or whether he's punched hard enough, whether his message is too vague and conceptual for the moment.

Obama, Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe will treat the other Democrats in Denver with respect.

But don't expect them to take their advice.

Dean’s shadow

The shadow looming most ominously over Obama's campaign was that of then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who four years ago had harnessed the same Democratic outrage at the Iraq war to create an online fundraising sensation and the feeling of a national movement, but failed to win a single major primary.

Obama's campaign moved swiftly to take what was best of Dean's campaign — its energy and its grasp of the potential of the Internet. But while Obama's aides spoke of their "movement," they left the movement's chaotic ethos at the door of their crisp Chicago office tower.

From the beginning, his organization was crisply bureaucratic and detail-oriented, with staff neatly divided into discrete tasks. When senior adviser Anita Dunn joined the campaign last January amid the chaos of the early primaries, she was surprised to find a "gigantic room" beside the reception area full of staffers working solely on the primaries of February 5 and beyond.

From Dean, Obama also learned the difference between an online phenomenon and a concrete campaign.

"There were lessons we really learned from Howard Dean's primary,"
said Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy campaign manager. "You can't just have this Internet presence — it has to be real on the ground."

And so every aspect of Obama's campaign — even the giant rallies and enthused students hat recalled Dean's early success — was connected firmly to the very earthly realities of retail politics.

 

The campaign’s website, My.BarackObama.com, encouraged supporters to create local groups and to participate in local volunteer activities -- something that would account for much of Obama's success in states from Minnesota to Connecticut, where organizers arrived to find full-scale volunteer operations in place.

The giant rallies, too, served a practical purpose: They were tools for gathering the names, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of potential voters and volunteers, put on a form as the price of admission.

As the sprint turned toward a marathon in January 2007, Obama's message-makers concluded the rallies could be counterproductive, the image of the candidate exhorting a crowd from a high stage turning off some women and other voters. But his organizers insisted the rallies were key to building their ground organization.

The compromise, an aide said: Rallies would only be held at night, too late for images on the evening news.

Keeping control

Democrats look back on Kerry's 2004 campaign with a sense of missed opportunity. But Obama’s view of Kerry's campaign was more nuanced. He adopted Kerry's central strategic insight in the primary, that the race would be won or lost in Iowa. And, after Kerry's early, key endorsement, Obama made Kerry himself a key surrogate on issues of national security.

But Obama's aides also saw Kerry as driven to bad, even panicky, decisions by the whims of the Washington media, whose opinions they approach with a self-conscious disdain. Obama notably resisted waves of conventional wisdom in the primary: It was written that he needed to work harder to consolidate black support, that he needed to attack Clinton more frontally and that his all-or-nothing gamble on Iowa was folly.

Kerry has cited one of his own decisions, in particular, as a mistake -- the choice, consistent with the principles of The New York Times editorial board and with Kerry's stated views, to accept public financing for the general election. It was a choice that cut off what some thought would have been a massive financial advantage against President Bush.

Even more crucially, it also meant that Kerry's ground operation would be outsourced to a new group called America Coming Together, which was barred by law from coordinating with Kerry's own campaign. Elements of his media campaign were outsourced to another group, The Media Fund.

Obama's aides view these moves as Kerry relinquishing control of key aspects of his campaign, and as a mistake they would not repeat. Obama insistently shut down attempts to build new organizations to attack McCain on television. And the central ground organization for the fall campaign is also taking place in-house, hitting a crescendo with a massive Labor Day voter registration drive.

Authenticity

Kerry, Gore and Democratic candidates stretching back to Michael Dukakis and beyond were beset by the perception -- fed by the GOP -- that they were inauthentic, effete poseurs pretending to be regular Americans. They lost control of their public images behind photographs -- Dukakis in a tank, Gore in a sweater and Kerry in a hunting vest – evidence of Democrats trying too hard to mimic the values of the voters they were trying to court, and instead repelling them.

Obama -- again, perhaps because of his biography and heritage -- had no real option other than to be who he is. "He's just comfortable in his own skin," said an Obama aide.

That comfort -- and the candidate's own ability to communicate -- has also allowed Obama to respond to crucial challenges head on. In what was probably the most dangerous moment of the year, television networks this spring broadcast sermons by Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which harshly criticized America and brought the specter of racial grievance -- which Obama's cndidacy sought to banish -- rushing back.

Instead of trying to bat down the controversy or ride out the storm, Obama went big. Summoning the national press to the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he delivered a Whitman-esque command performance. He denounced Wright's words without (yet) denouncing the man, and returned to his biography and to his message of racial reconciliation in a way that seemed to satisfy his critics and which essentially ended the conversation. Unlike his Democratic predecessors, Obama defended the core of who he is, rather than looking for a different costume to wear.

"It was a genuinely difficult moment in the campaign for them and him, and he did a risky thing -- gave an extremely well-received speech and came out of it stronger, if anything," said Howard Wolfson, who was then a chief strategist for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's main rival.

"There are very few politicians who would have been capable of that -- not only demonstrating the willingness to confront it, but also coming out ahead of it at the end of the confrontation."

The Clintons

Obama's relationship with the Clintons is profoundly ambiguous. An admirer, and imitator, of some of their muscular politics, he was also a critic of Bill Clinton's centrist compromises in the 1990s. The implicit premise of his campaign and its slogan -- "Change You Can Believe In" -- was that the Clintons had turned politics into a cynical game.

In reaction to Clinton campaigns past and present, Obama and Plouffe established an early organizational construct: "No drama." The phrase governed their hiring -- they sought competence and collegiality over showy brilliance and ego -- and it was posted on signs around the office as the campaign got under way.

Obama's staff was drawn largely from a quadrant of the Democratic Party that either never fell in love with the Clintons or had long fallen out of love with them. At times, Obama campaigned explicitly against the Clinton era of the 1990s.

But Obama’s inner circle also took lessons from its pugnacious rivals. Starting almost as soon as the campaign launched, Obama showed a willingness to attack stories from news organizations as varied as Fox News and the Los Angeles Times with detailed rebuttal campaigns.

Obama's campaign also arrived at the general election ready for partisan war -- though they'd eschewed the term "war room," popularized and embraced by successive Clinton campaigns, as inconsistent with Obama's intent to remake politics.

Still, on a recent day in the packed pair of horseshoe-shaped cubicles that make up his communications department, Obama's aides were engaged in a very Clintonian act: Destroying the reputation of an author who was trying to destroy Obama, Jerome Corsi.

Working the phones, they ensured that Corsi would be harshly challenged even by CNN's Larry King, who read Corsi's most inflammatory past statements, provided by the campaign and its allies. It was an echo of a tactic perfected by the Clintons: the all-out, no-holds-barred attack on an attacker.

And the Obama campaign has earned, in the end, the grudging admiration of Clinton's aides, who watched him chart a steady course as her campaign veered and zigzagged day after day, depending on who had the upper hand in its endless internal struggles.

"They were very good at waking up every day and knowing what they wanted to say about Barack Obama, and what they wanted to say about us," said Wolfson of the primary. "It seems like a basic thing, but we proved it wasn't so easy."

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