Obama's campaign manager waits for a call about 2012

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 5, 2010 

WASHINGTON — David Plouffe's days of spending time with his family may be nearing an end again. His president may need him in his 2012 re-election campaign.

Plouffe, who was the manager of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, says Obama hasn't yet given a thought to winning a second term, and that the president hasn't started to build the massive campaign machinery he'll need to compete against whoever the Republicans nominate.

"I can tell you that the president is not concerned with his reelection," Plouffe writes in the new paperback version of his book on the 2008 election, The Audacity to Win. "We have no reelection campaign in the wings. We'll build it when the time is appropriate."

That time likely is coming soon. Plouffe will speak in Sacramento on Sept. 13, kicking off a seven-state tour promoting the new edition of his book. Through the fall, he'll try to help Democrats in the fall elections for control of Congress. And then, assuming Obama calls, he'll presumably play a major, albeit still undefined, role in his second presidential campaign.

"If the president wants me back at some point later this year or next year, we're ready for that," he said in an interview.

Plouffe was one top member of the campaign who didn't take a job in the White House. Instead, when colleagues such as David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and Valerie Jarrett moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Plouffe went home to wife and children.

"The two years of the campaign were wonderful," he said. "But I was essentially an absentee husband and father. We made the decision as a family that we weren't willing to do that for six straight years."

One thing he did during the break was go to school. After dropping out of the University of Delaware in 1989 to jump on the campaign trail, Plouffe, 43, went back this year and got his bachelor's degree in political science. At the same time, he's joined fellow Delaware dropout Steve Schmidt, who was a top adviser to Republican John McCain in the 2008 campaign, in helping launch a new center for politics at the university.

If Plouffe managed to rest up during his two years away from full time politics, he'll need it.

His party is headed toward big losses on Nov. 2. The University of Virginia's respected Center for Politics this week said the Democrats are likely to lose control of the House of Representatives, could lose the Senate, and will lose their control over a majority of the nation's governor's offices.

While the 2012 presidential election is still more than a year away, Obama is bogged down with dismal approval ratings. One danger sign: a recent poll in the critical battleground state of Ohio found voters would prefer George W. Bush for president over Obama by a margin of 50-42.

"This is going to be a tough election for us obviously," Plouffe said of the 2010 vote.

He's working as an outside, unpaid adviser to the White House now, trying to find ways to mitigate Democrats' losses this fall. He's also advising a former client, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat.

A key challenge, he said, is getting some of the 15 million to 20 million people who voted for the first time in 2008 to come out and vote again this fall — and vote for Democrats.

Independent analysts say many of those voters have been disillusioned by Obama. Plouffe said it's normal to see such a drop in voting. "People who voted for the first time in presidential elections historically have a steep drop off heading into the next election. None of this is new," he said. "The question is how do we get these first time voters educated, to know the candidates and understand the stakes."

Known for his mastery of cutting edge social networks as well as a campaign strategy that outfoxed Hillary Clinton, Plouffe said a key this fall remains personal contact with voters from volunteers going door to door or calling neighbors. Many support Obama and the Democrats' agenda on issues such as health care, he said. "But they need to be reminded about the stakes of the election. If we can do a little bit better than (expected) it can make a difference in close races."

Plouffe thinks that general election voters might balk at some of the conservatives nominated by Republicans, such as Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky. "Their voters are highly motivated," he said. But Rand Paul and Sharron Angle are causing these races to be competitive (for Democrats)."

Plouffe sad he hasn't heard any hint that Obama would be challenged for the nomination in 2012, or who the Republicans might nominate.

"At this time four years ago, there weren't any people talking about Barack Obama, including me," he said. "There will be people running we don't see yet. There will be people who we think will run but won't."

He said it's impossible to know now who'd be a strong or weak rival two years hence.

"There are people like Sarah Palin who have a very strong following in about a third of the Republican Party, but do they play with the larger electorate? My sense is no," Plouffe said. "But we'll let their process play out."

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