Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review: The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, by David Plouffe

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory
by David Plouffe. Campaign Manager, Obama for America
390 pages

We know how this story ends. 

It is the beginning and the middle chapters, some of which we know and some of which we're just learning, that David Plouffe shares with us in his recounting of the Obama campaign, The Audacity to Win. 

"When we entered the race, we talked a lot about trying to run a different kind of campaign. The odds of our electing a president were against us: our only hope of success depended on breaking free of the standard political paradigm and becoming a movement. ... Above all, it meant a change in tone. We wanted to avoid engaging in the snarky tit-for-tat that had consumed our politics for years, and to put the grassroots - the people - before interest groups and endorsement politics. We wanted to reach voters individually rather than expect some group or person to deliver them.

"Our dogged refusal to be led around by the nose by insiders and interest groups was driven by a few factors: We had no margin for error; We knew we wouldn't run the perfect campaign, and we didn't, but we could not be cavalier in making decisions on resource allocation - whether time, money, or message. We had none of them to waste." (pg. 68-69)

The Obama campaign strategy, as conceived and executed by "the Davids" (Plouffe and Axelrod) and their team, was many things.  It was a break from the conventional ways of campaigning, from the focus on grassroots organizing to the embrace of online fundraising.

What David Plouffe shows his reader is that while there were many successes (and rightfully so), there were mistakes and missteps. He is forthcoming about many of these, about Obama's ("I don't want this to happen again" stern reprimands when they did) and shoulders the blame often. Plouffe reminds us of the facets of this campaign that one either forgets just 18 months after the election or that we didn't know about. For instance, I never knew how indecisive Obama was about running for President (even after he had decided to do so - a hesitancy shared by Plouffe as he contemplated becoming his Campaign Manager.)

"I called Obama in Hawaii to tell him. 'Against my better judgement," I said, "I've decided to accept and manage this nutty enterprise. All-in. I'm yours until we win or lose.'
'I am very grateful,' he responded. 'I'll do my best to make sure you don't regret it.'" (pg. 26)

In looking back on the Obama campaign with The Audacity to Win, it would have been easy for Plouffe to simply remind us of the good stuff, the feel-good moments of the campaign. He does this, absolutely, but his is a surprisingly more critically candid view of the campaign than I originally anticipated, especially knowing that Obama supported the writing of the book.

As just one example, Plouffe is honest about the campaign's failings to fully research Jeremiah Wright. There were issues with the man beginning literally from Day 1 when Obama announced his candidacy. Plouffe fully owns that these issues should have prompted a thorough internal review in order to stave off the crisis that erupted in April 2009 - which would, ironically, prompt one of the campaign's best moments, the speech on race at the National Constitution Center (a truly incredible place to spend some time, by the way) in Philadelphia.

There's a lot of talk about political strategy in The Audacity to Win (the reader is along for the ride through every single state - in Audacity, nearly every state gets a full analysis, from delegates to ad strategy) and enough inside baseball stories of the Obama campaign to satisfy the most fervent political junkie. The reader almost feels part of the staff, privvy to conference calls and campaign emails. (Maybe that's somewhat intentional, given the campaign's strategy of reaching out to donors directly.)

The Audacity to Win takes a much more complimentary view (understandably so) of the Clinton campaign than Anne Kornblut's book, Notes from the Cracked Ceiling, while Plouffe's view of the McCain campaign (particularly in regards to the Sarah Palin pick) is one of eyebrow-raised puzzlement and perplexity. Palin was barely on the Obama campaign's radar, and where he could have had opportunity in his book to take different shots, Plouffe doesn't, preferring to stick to discussions of the strategic nature.

Plouffe illuminates the more humorous moments of the campaign - the fact that the campaign bus was always tuned to ESPN instead of the pundits on the cable news channels and how many of the late-night conference calls were conducted by Plouffe from the bathroom of the small Chicago apartment that he shared with his wife and son.

Plouffe is at his best in The Audacity to Win when he marries the personal and the political. Anyone who has ever lost a beloved pet can empathize with Plouffe's heartbreak and helplessness when his wife calls from across the country with news of their dog's decline and death. With this simple anecdote - and others, like a Cat's in the Cradle type of moment with his young son, and the announcement that he and his wife were expecting their second child on November 2, 2009 - he poignantly illustrates the demands that campaigns require of their staff and the dichotomy of not being there for many of life's significant moments.

At times, Plouffe also connects his early pre-Internet political experiences as a staffer on Tom Harkins' 1990 campaign with those of the ingenues he supervises on the Obama campaign. On the eve of the release of the influential Des Moines Register poll in December 2007, Plouffe writes of days gone by when he was charged with going to the Register building at midnight to persuade a deliveryman for a copy of the paper to learn Harkins' poll results.

"Since then I have never seen a Register poll without thinking of that night and of how seemingly insignificant moments like that can have an outsized impact on your professional trajectory." [Oh, how very true, David!]  "Now I got to play the old hand: I told our mostly under thirty staff about how we used to get the Register poll down at the docks because there was no Internet, and they would roll their eyes and look at me like I had escaped from the set of Cocoon." (pg. 116)

(As a peer of yours age-wise, David, I know that look so very well.) 

The Audacity to Win is a book with great appeal to political junkies like me, but also for people interested in organizational communication, the culture of the workplace, and management.  Plouffe writes of the "no drama" rule of the Obama campaign and how establishing basic rules from the get-go allowed them to build an organization - and an organizational culture - worthy of a model for many other businesses.

I finished this book this morning, spending a few hours reading the final 100 or so pages.  Doing so on the eve of this momentous vote on health care reform lends itself to a bit of irony.  Regardless of what position you have on healthcare reform, and however tomorrow's vote comes out, this issue (and this historic vote) will come to define the Obama presidency.

A presidency that so many worked so hard for and sacrificed so much to achieve. 

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FTC disclaimer: Borrowed from the library.  Will need to take out second mortgage to pay the overdue fees.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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