When Barack Obama began thinking of running for president two years ago, he turned to a small inner circle of political advisors from his 2004 Senate campaign. Like Obama, they were talented, laid back and idealistic with limited exposure on the national stage.
But with the candidate's help, they orchestrated what some consider one of the most improbable and effective campaigns in American political history. They took a little-known senator with a foreign sounding name and almost no national experience and got him elected as the 44th president of the United States. They did it by recruiting and vesting millions of volunteers in the outcome, by raising more money than any campaign in history, and by largely ignoring that their candidate happed to be a black man.
When President-elect Obama gave his victory speech Tuesday night in Chicago's Grant Park, he was quick to give credit. "To the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics," the president-Elect said, "You made this happen."
Who was Obama talking about and how did they do it? Ninety minutes after the speech ended, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft sat down with them in a Chicago hotel suite. It was 1.a.m. Wednesday and the reality of it all was just beginning to sink in.
"We just left Grant Park. What are you feeling'?" Kroft asked.
"Little numb. A little tired. A little overwhelmed," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist and political alter ego, replied.
The group also included David Plouffe, the camera shy campaign manager and field general who made it all happen. "Yeah. I mean, it's been a 22-month road, and a lotta twists and turns. But you know, I think he filled the stage tonight," Plouffe told Kroft.
There was senior aide Robert Gibbs, who was always at Obama's side, his former and future press secretary. "And it was fun to watch all the people come out who've been part of the campaign. And…," Gibbs rasped, clearing his throat.
He told Kroft he lost his voice "within the last few hours."
And finally Anita Dunn, a relative newcomer who handled communications, research and policy.
The only person missing from the brain trust was the candidate himself.
How big a role did he play in this campaign?
"Well, no one had a bigger role, you know. The great thing about our campaign was we didn't have a lotta discussion about what our message was or what he wanted to do," Plouffe said. "From the beginning, he knew exactly what he wanted to say. And it's one of the reasons we were successful. A lotta campaigns will spend hours every day wondering about how to change their message. And he was pretty clear about what he wanted to say, where he wanted to take the country, and either people would accept it or they wouldn't."
It began 22 months ago on a frigid day in Springfield, Ill., almost it seemed on an impulse. There was no money and no real organization - only a vast untapped reservoir of disaffected voters and potential volunteers.
"This campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together," Sen. Obama said in the February 2007 Springfield speech.
Axelrod recalled, "When we started the campaign, we met around a table like this. And there was just a handful of us. You know, we started with nothing. And Barack said to us, 'I want this to be a grassroots campaign. I wanna reinvigorate our democracy. First of all I think that's the only way we can win and secondly I want to rekindle some idealism that together we can get things done in this country,"
Asked if they seriously thought Obama had a shot, Plouffe told Kroft, "We thought he had a shot. I actually think we knew what big underdogs we were. And he got into this in a very unusual way. Most people plan this from years. They spend a lotta time in Iowa and New Hampshire planning for it. We got into this very unconventionally."
"We planned for days days…," Axelrod joked.
"For days," Plouffe replied, laughing. "And in many respects, that made it challenging. But I think we were better for it. Because we were more agile. We were not afraid to take risks. And we didn't have the stifling pressure of expectations."
"My fundamental concern for him wasn't whether he had the capacity, 'cause I think he's the smartest guy that I've ever worked with or known," Axelrod said.
"But it was whether he had that pathological drive to be president. You know, so often, what defines presidential candidates is this need to be president, to define themselves. He didn't have that. And, you know, we told him, 'You're gonna have to find some other way to motivate yourself.' And he did, which was what he could do as president."