Aug 20, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
(POLITICO) Barack Obama’s campaign team, celebrated four years ago for its exceptional cohesion and eyes-on-the-prize strategic focus, has been shadowed this time by a succession of political disagreements and personal rivalries that haunted the effort at the outset.
Second-guessing about personnel, strategy and tactics has been a dominant theme of the reelection effort, according to numerous current and former Obama advisers who were interviewed for “Obama’s Last Stand,” an e-book out Monday published in a collaboration between POLITICO and Random House. The discord, these sources said, has on occasion flowed from Obama himself, who at repeated turns has made vocal his dissatisfaction with decisions made by his campaign team, with its messaging, with Vice President Joe Biden and with what Obama feared was clumsy coordination between his West Wing and reelection headquarters in Chicago.
The effort in Chicago, meanwhile, has been bedeviled by some of the drama Obama so deftly dodged in 2008 — including, at a critical point earlier this year, a spat that left senior operatives David Axelrod and Stephanie Cutter barely on speaking terms — and growing doubts about the effectiveness of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The e-book, produced as part of a two-month reporting project that included interviews with two dozen current and former members of Obama’s team, illuminates how the mood and character of the 2012 reelection effort is flowing from the top — with Obama’s own personality and values shaping his campaign just as powerfully as he did four years ago.
This has produced a campaign being animated by one thing above all. It is not exclusively about hope and change anymore, words that seem like distant echoes even to Obama’s original loyalists — and to the president himself. It is not the solidarity of a hard-fought cause, often absent in this mostly joyless campaign. It is Obama’s own burning competitiveness, with his remorseless focus on beating Mitt Romney — an opponent he genuinely views with contempt and fears will be unfit to run the country.
Obama is sometimes portrayed as a reluctant warrior, sorry to see 2012 marked by so much partisan warfare but forced by circumstance to go along. But this perception is by most evidence untrue. In the interviews with current and former Obama aides, not one said he expressed any reservations about the negativity. He views it as a necessary part of campaigning, as a natural — if unpleasant — rotation of the cyclical political wheel. Obama’s trash-talking competitiveness, a trait that has defined him since his days on the court as a basketball-obsessed teenager in Hawaii, was on display one night last February, when the president spotted a woman he knew was close to Sen. Marco Rubio in a Florida hotel lobby. “Is your boy going to go for [vice president]?” the president asked her. Maybe, she replied.
“Well,” he said, chuckling, according to a person who witnessed the encounter. “Tell your boy to watch it. He might get his ass kicked.”
Other passages of the book reveal:
• Obama personally dispatched senior West Wing aides to Chicago — led by David Plouffe and Pete Rouse — to better coordinate operations between the White House and Chicago. He was especially irritated by what he viewed as self-promotion by subordinates — and fumed that ad consultant Jim Margolis had appeared in a New York Times profile on Obama’s negative ad operation. Margolis sent a mea culpa to Obama and the staff, but Obama remained miffed.
The president’s less-than-stellar appraisal of his own team’s efforts has been a recurring motif of 2012.In late May, what was intended as a clever campaign stunt — dispatching Axelrod to Boston to personally make the case against Romney on the steps of the State House — went awry.
As Axelrod was greeted by pro-Romney hecklers chanting “Axel-Fraud,” Obama was in the West Wing watching with growing disgust as the event unfolded on cable news. The scene, he scoffed to a nearby aide, was an ill-conceived “spectacle.”
“We aren’t going to do that kind of thing again, are we?” he asked peevishly, not a question but an order. Obama has no qualms about throwing a punch, his close intimates say, but can’t stand looking foolish when he does.
• Biden’s misstep, also in May, in announcing his approval of gay marriage — which forced Obama to do the same before he intended — caused greater disharmony in the White House than was reported at the time.
Biden blamed Campaign Manager Jim Messina for “throwing him under the bus” with the media during the gay-marriage flap — a charge that turned out to be untrue. In an emotional one-on-one meeting with Obama, Biden apologized profusely and said he’d been betrayed by Obama’s aides.
The president tried to calm him down, saying, “Look, Joe, there are people who want to divide us. You and I have to be on the same page from now on. You and I have to make sure that we don’t get divided.”
Plouffe and other West Wingers were even angrier that Biden had screwed up his boss’s carefully laid plans to announce his position before next month’s Charlotte convention — even as Biden previously had counseled against weighing in on the issue for fear of alienating battleground-state independents.
• As Team Obama was gearing up to face Romney after the GOP primaries, Axelrod and Cutter — close friends who oversee the campaign’s massive messaging and communications operations — clashed over a minor incident that left them barely on speaking terms during a critical early part of the campaign.
The spark, according to people close to the situation: Axelrod suspected Cutter of taking a network TV appearance he had been asked to do. The conflict, well-known inside Obamaland but not outside the inner circle — was really the reflection of a grinding campaign, Cutter’s propensity for stepping on toes, and Axelrod’s elliptical and disorganized management style.