Obamaworld 2012

9 minute read
Michael Scherer

As big as a football field and nearly as empty, Barack Obama’s re-election headquarters looks like a start-up gone wrong. Wires sprout like weeds from the carpeting, legions of bookshelves stand empty, and the swing-state maps hastily pinned to the wall are freebies from the AAA auto club down the street. In one room that could fit hundreds of people, just a few dozen sit at long desks. Most don’t look old enough to buy a beer.

But if you want to find out why the President has set up shop in a Chicago skyscraper 18 months before Election Day, you need only peek into the office of Jeremy Bird, 32, the campaign’s field director, at the far end of the room. He pulls a name from a database on his laptop, picks up his phone and dials in the hope of reminding one more person of the 2008 magic. “I just wanted to call, and first I wanted to thank you,” Bird says when a volunteer from Obama’s first presidential campaign answers in North Carolina. The computer screen notes that this guy hasn’t done much in recent years, so Bird asks for his thoughts about 2012. “You are listed as a superstar 2008 volunteer,” Bird continues. “What do we need to do to get you back involved?”

(See pictures of an artist’s view of the 2008 presidential campaign.)

In Obamaworld parlance, this is a “one-on-one,” a cold call that aides hope will form the foundation for next year’s re-election effort. This summer, the Obama campaign expects to arrange hundreds of thousands of these individual contacts, over the phone or in person, with just about everyone who gave his or her time back when Obama was an upstart outsider three years ago. To accomplish the massive task, the campaign is launching a replay of a program started in 2008 called Summer Organizers, in which more than 1,500 volunteers have committed to work 20- or 40-hour weeks through the summer. In the first week of June, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee will hold 42 two-day training sessions in 40 states.

The goal is to reactivate old donors, door knockers and phone bankers with individual attention. “It definitely differs from past campaigns, because usually they will just call people and say, Can you come in and do phone calls?” says Bird, who, like other senior staff, has been making calls himself. “We are taking the time now so that these folks know: You are not just a cog in the wheel. You’re a volunteer we respect and admire.”

(See the top 10 Obama backlash moments.)

The campaign’s larger strategy is to capitalize on its 2011 head start. Obama is an incumbent with no primary challenger, while Republicans are still fretting about when and whether to get into the race. No one in Chicago expects a cakewalk in 2012, not after two years of political battering. But they also know an opportunity when they see one. “I can’t tell you what a gift, if we use it properly, this year is,” says David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager. “If we don’t, shame on us.”

A New Political Landscape
From the inside, Obama 2012 looks and feels much as Obama 2008 did, with a familiar cast of characters in similar roles. In fact, all of the people who have been hired so far into the inner circle have been there before. Jim Messina, who served as the ’08 campaign’s chief of staff before a turn at the White House, is campaign manager. David Axelrod, the message guru, will reprise his role. After fizzled talks about a high-profile job with Facebook, senior White House aide Robert Gibbs is expected back as well. The field leadership, led by Bird and Mitch Stewart, Obama’s 2008 Iowa organizer, remains unchanged. At the White House, a coterie of old campaign hands, including Plouffe, Stephanie Cutter and Dan Pfeiffer, keep in close touch with Chicago. President Obama, meanwhile, plays a chairman-of-the-board role, receiving regular progress briefings and speaking intermittently with Messina and Axelrod.

(See who’s who in Barack Obama’s White House.)

But Obama 2012 opens its doors on a landscape that barely resembles that of the good old days. The campaign that made “Change you can believe in” a national slogan must now present a more complicated, and less emotionally stirring, case for continuity. “It was a fundamentally different position as a challenger, though the vision remains fundamentally the same,” says Axelrod. “Our mission is to tell that story about where we are going and to make sure people understand that there is a consistent thread here and that they are in the center of all of this.” That message, framed as “Winning the future” by the White House, will likely revisit 2008 themes about rebuilding the American Dream and restoring the American economy for the middle class.

Axelrod and company hope to recapture the energy of 2008, when Obama’s organizing vision stirred the Democratic base and people who had never cared about politics found themselves inviting strangers into their homes to organize precinct walks. But it will be harder this time. There’s no George W. Bush to kick around anymore. The Great Recession drove the unemployment rate above 10%, and the 2009 fight over health care swung the enthusiasm pendulum to the Republicans, making the Tea Party the nation’s most talked-about people-powered movement. Many of the folks who turned the 2008 Obama dream into a reality — young voters, minorities and volunteers — haven’t been heard from in recent years.

Can Obama Change the Game Again?

Some on the left have argued that the President dropped the ball by failing to keep his network of supporters engaged and by following his transformational campaign with a transactional governing style. “Fighting to make something happen is different than sitting back and trying to mediate something,” says Marshall Ganz, a supporter turned critic of Obama, who teaches at Harvard. “People can’t organize around that.”

That critique gets a rise out of Obama’s senior staff. “Those are the types of things that people with lifetime tenure like to say,” remarks Axelrod. “What we have tried to do is effect change in the real world, in a difficult environment.” Still, Obama’s inner circle understands that the grass roots need rejuvenating. “Everything in 2008 was in service of the hand on the door knocker,” says Joe Rospars, who will reprise his 2008 role as the campaign’s top digital strategist. “That’s the one thing that will be exactly the same.”

(See the 10 elections that changed America.)

Obama’s senior staff has hatched a plan to start anew, urging the President’s supporters to look beyond the grind of the past two years and toward the simpler choice of the next election. Obama strategists want to force the question early. When the Obama 2012 website went live on April 4, it asked a simple question: “Are you in?” The accompanying YouTube video, which was e-mailed to supporters, focused on field volunteers knocking on doors and working phones, just like in the old days. “You can’t be half in,” explains one Obama team member.

Playing One on One
To further engage the troops, Obama’s aides came up with the one-on-one-conversation strategy, letting disillusioned or just disconnected former volunteers vent concerns and renew old passions. “We have the great luxury of spending a huge amount of time ensuring that we can have a very personal conversation with supporters in a way that alleviates any concern about enthusiasm in the long run,” says Gibbs. “It’s an extraordinary advantage.”

The Chicago plan will play out in places like the Denver suburb of Arvada with volunteers like Suzan Rickert, a recently retired health care worker. For more than 25 years, Rickert, 60, has been active with her local Democratic Party, and she has long been accustomed to caucus meetings with just four or five people in attendance, including her husband and her. But for a fleeting time, she says, something happened when Obama burst onto the scene. “In 2008 we had 80 people,” she remembers. “I want them to come back.”

(See pictures of Obama’s 2008 victory celebration in Chicago.)

A few weeks ago, she answered an online appeal for volunteers to donate 40 hours a week all summer working the phones and pavement for the President. She decided to put off her plan of starting a small business, after being assured that she would not be the only person over the age of 25 on the job. Her training has yet to begin, but she has already started meeting with former volunteers, including a gay couple and a pastor, at the local Starbucks or Panera Bread. “Once you get people talking, they go and go,” she says. Her sessions tend to last an hour, and the results of the conversation are entered into the Democratic National Committee’s VoteBuilder master database.

The new volunteers will be matched up with the existing network of Organizing for America volunteers and staff that the DNC has nurtured for the past three years. “No other President going into a re-election effort has ever had a grass-roots network that we have in these states,” says Stewart, 35, now battleground-states director.

The campaign, along with the DNC, has also been testing new strategies and technologies, like iPads that can play videos for voters during neighborhood canvasses or mobile applications for reporting data about voter contacts and responses. For each swing state, number crunchers have developed individually tailored recipes, with mixes of voter registration, base mobilization and persuasion, that will be required to win. And they can mine a Facebook community of nearly 21 million supporters, plus 8 million Twitter followers. “Obviously the technology is different” than it was in 2008, adds Plouffe. “The data is going to be much richer this time.”

(See “In a Relationship or Just Friends? Facebook Cozies Up to Obama and Congress.”)

Of course, a great field organization alone is never enough to win a campaign. Obama will still need to hone a winning message and weather a recalcitrant economy. Axelrod likes to compare the field organization to the field-goal unit on a football team. “You have to get close enough to the goalpost for them to make a difference,” he says. But right now, with Republicans many months from having a nominee of their own, organizing is one thing Obama’s advisers can control. And if they can control it, they intend to master it. Again.

See TIME’s 2008 Person of the Year: Barack Obama.

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