Behind the Scenes at an Obama Strategy Session

Back in June, The Curmudgeon speculated about how Mitt Romney’s campaign advisors might be going about developing their strategy for the fall campaign.  Turnabout is fair play:  the following is a look at how President Obama’s campaign advisors might be tackling the same challenge.

A Sketch in One Act

(The setting is a large, comfortable conference room in a high-rise office building in Chicago.  Already seated, sipping coffee and talking awkwardly, are Jessica Neufeld, a senior fellow at the American Progressive Institute, and Carl Villeroy, a long-time Democratic Party political operative who ran many successful campaigns for state and national office before retiring from such work in favor of the far easier, less stressful, and more lucrative business of commenting on such campaigns for a variety of radio and television networks.

 As they talk they are joined by Axel Rhodes, one of the architects of Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the presidency, then a White House communications director working closely with the President, and now released from his Washington assignment to help run the President’s re-election campaign.)

Rhodes begins to speak as soon as he enters the room.

RHODES (extending his hand to Neufeld):  Jessica, thank you for joining me here today.  (Turning and extending his hand to Villeroy)  Carl, good to see you again.  On behalf of the President, I want to thank you both for spending some time with me.  The President feels it’s very important for us to reach out to various experts and constituent groups to get their ideas on the campaign.  I was with him when we put together the list of people he wanted me to meet with and can tell you that he put both of your names on the list himself.

We’re holding these meetings a little later than we probably should have.  The campaign strategy is pretty much set and in motion, but we’re always looking for fresh ideas and there’ll be plenty of opportunities to add new wrinkles between now and November.

I also should explain, before we start, that our perspective is that unlike most presidential elections, where the polls start off with a big difference between the candidates and that margin gets smaller and smaller as the election draws closer, we think we’re going to see the opposite this time around.  The President and Romney are fairly close in the polls right now, but we think we’re going to see the President pull away pretty significantly in the polling we did over the Labor Day weekend – we should see the results in the next day or two.  After that, we then expect to just continue pulling away until it’s a complete rout by election day.  The American people understand the great job President Obama has done under the most challenging circumstances since the end of World War II and will return him to office with a resounding mandate.

(Neufeld and Villeroy look at each other in disbelief)

NEUFELD:  Seriously, Axel?

RHODES:  Absolutely.

VILLEROY:  What you been smokin’, boy?

RHODES:  I take it you disagree?

NEUFELD:  Yes.

VILLEROY:  It’s the economy, stupid.

RHODES (ignoring Villeroy):  Why do you think that’s not how it’s going to unfold, Jessica?

NEUFELD:  To be honest, Axel, what I’ve seen so far has been pretty unimpressive.  I know the people I work with, the people I’m presumably here representing today, think you’re in real jeopardy because of the repeated missteps of the past three-and-a-half years.

VILLEROY:  It’s the economy, stupid.

RHODES (ignoring Villeroy):  Can you be more specific?

NEUFELD:  Of course.  Take health care, for example.  You totally blew health care.  You should’ve gone after a single-payer system, like complete Medicare buy-in, but instead you caved and gave the whole system gift-wrapped to the insurance industry.

RHODES:  We had to compromise to get something passed.

NEUFELD:  You only compromise after you first try to get it your way, Axel.  You guys never even tried, never even gave lip service to true liberal principles.

RHODES:  We had to deal in the real world, Jessica, not in the liberal ether.

VILLEROY:  And the Republicans stuck it right up your ether, didn’t they, boy?

NEUFELD:  Well, I disagree with your approach.  There’s nothing wrong with losing a battle if you lose because you hold steadfast to the principles of the voters who put you in office in the first place.

RHODES:  Only people who’ve never been in office say things like that.

NEUFELD:  Because it’s true, Axel.

RHODES:  No, Jessica, it’s not.  And who’re these people you claim put us in office?

NEUFELD:  Progressive voters.

VILLEROY:  She’s funny.  The liberal girl’s a hoot.

NEUFELD:  But besides that, it’s now more than two years since the reform law passed and polls show that the majority of American still don’t understand what’s in it.  When you poll the individual components of the law they’re heavily in favor of them, but when you poll on the law itself, they’re opposed.

VILLEROY:  Too damned complicated.  You need to be able to explain it in two minutes or it’s too complicated.

NEUFELD:  Not too complicated, I think, but inadequately explained.  You guys never really explained to people what it means and how it’ll work.

RHODES:  I led the public communication campaign on health care.

VILLEROY:  And you totally screwed the pooch on that one.

RHODES:  I don’t agree.  I think we did an excellent job.

VILLEROY:  As the polls confirm, right?

NEUFELD:  You guys had enormous political capital when you took office and you squandered it.  Look at the stimulus bill.

VILLEROY:  It’s the economy, stupid.

NEUFELD:  Exactly.

RHODES:  But the stimulus has been a tremendous success.

NEUFELD:  No, it was a failure.  Ask the man on the street.  If he says it was a failure, it was a failure, regardless of what you guys think.  You went way too small and didn’t take advantage of the bill to invest heavily enough in infrastructure, in education, in civil rights and women’s rights and job training and preventing big business from outsourcing jobs.  You did virtually nothing to help people with their unsustainable mortgages.  You turned your backs on unions and public employees.

RHODES:  We saved the economy, Jessica.  We saved millions of jobs and bailed out fifty state governments that would’ve gone belly up without the things we did.

VILLEROY:  Says who?

RHODES:  Says me, Carl.  Says the President.

VILLEROY:  When?  When did you ever clearly, directly, explicitly explain to the American people how the stimulus helped them?

RHODES:  We say it all the time.

VILLEROY:  No, all you talk about is the few big companies you saved and the people you put to work repairing roads, but nothing else.

RHODES:  The American people know, they understand.

VILLEROY:  The hell they do.  There are millions of young teachers and public employees thinking about voting for Romney who don’t understand that they’re only still working because of the stimulus they think failed, millions of low-income people who don’t realize that their state only still has a Medicaid program because of the stimulus they think failed, millions of people who have no idea that their IRAs and 401Ks would be zero without the stimulus they think failed.

RHODES:  The American people know, they understand.

VILLEROY:  The hell they do.  Look at the polls, boy.  The public overwhelmingly believes the stimulus was a complete and utter failure.  If they thought it succeeded, you’d have a twenty-five point lead on Romney.  Do you have a twenty-five point lead on Romney, Axel?

RHODES:  No.

VILLEROY:  And do you know why you don’t?

RHODES:  You tell me, Carl.

VILLEROY:  Not because of what you did or didn’t accomplish but because of your failure to communicate about it to the American people.  Tell me Axel, what was your job in the White House?

RHODES:  Communication.

VILLEROY:  So there you see the problem.  If a tree falls in the forest and there was no one there to hear it, did it make a noise?  This is the same thing.  If you pass a stimulus and it saves millions of jobs and prevents an all-out depression and no one knows that, was the stimulus still successful?

NEUFELD:  And on top of that, if you do try to tell people now, do you really think they’ll believe you after so much time has passed?

VILLEROY:  Yeah, what the liberal girl says.  It was a failure of communication, Axel.  You have the greatest communicator in the White House since Reagan and he failed to communicate these undeniable successes.  Are you going to tell me the President’s incompetent?

RHODES:  No, of course not.

VILLEROY:  Well, someone was incompetent.

RHODES (shifting uneasily):  Okay, let’s take a look at our foreign policy successes.

VILLEROY:  Oh yes, let’s, because we all know how much the American people care about foreign policy.

RHODES:  You think they don’t?

NEUFELD:  I think they don’t.

RHODES:  We disagree.  In the campaign, lack of foreign policy experience was the biggest question mark people had about the President, and three-and-a-half years later, we think he’s answered those questions.

VILLEROY:  Yeah, about that.  Before we go on, I just gotta say:  cut it out.  You guys are always living in the past with your constant references to the last campaign.  It’s over, it’s past, no one cares what you said, and mostly what it does is remind people of the things you said you’d do that you still haven’t done.  You need to talk about the future, not the past, because no one gives a rat’s ass.

RHODES:  We inherited a huge mess from Bush and have expended a lot of time and effort to clean it up.  We deserve some credit for…

VILLEROY (interrupting):  No, boy, you don’t deserve any credit.  It’s a job you asked for, a job you were elected to do, and you can’t claim any extra credit for doing it.  Now, you need to look to the future and stop blaming someone else for what you haven’t been able to deliver.

RHODES:  We had to repair relations with countries all over the world after the high-handed and arrogant manner in which the Bush administration treated them, and…

VILLEROY:  You’re doing it again, you nimrod.  First of all, people don’t care.  Second of all, what little most people know about that they only know because Republicans painted it as you guys going around the world apologizing for American behavior in the recent past.

RHODES:  Which isn’t true, and you know it.

VILLEROY:  Of course I know it, boy, but did you guys ever respond to the statements Republicans were making about it?  Did you fight back?  No, of course not.  It was a failure of…of… help me here, liberal girl.

NEUFELD:  Communication.

VILLEROY:  Yes.  It was a failure of communication.  Thank you.  I knew there had to be a reason someone would invite you to a discussion about political strategy.

NEUFELD:  That was uncalled for, Carl.

VILLEROY:  The hell it was, Jessica.  He passed a health care bill and you and your people were disappointed with it.  He passed a stimulus bill and you and your people were unhappy with it.  He got Bin Laden, he got Khadafi out, he helped clear the way for major change in the middle east, and you and your people were silent about all of it.  All you and your whiny ass liberal do-gooder friends do is complain:  you complain about what the President’s done, you complain about what the President hasn’t done, and you don’t give him any credit for anything at all.  You act like you’re talking about Ronald Reagan, or any other Republican, and not Obama.  Not a single lick of credit, just a constant stream of one complaint after another.

There’s an impression out there today that Obama is a complete disappointment to the people who voted for him, and you and all your pundit friends who’ve never held an honest job in your lives are directly responsible for it.  You’re every bit as greedy as the rich guys who don’t want to give up their tax breaks, every bit as extreme as the Tea Party people who want to upend the American way of life, every bit as dishonest as the commentators on Fox, and every bit as incompetent as Axel and his crew at the White House who’ve so utterly failed to communicate to the American people about what the President’s done in office, how they’ve benefited from these things, and why they should give him four more years to finish the job he started.

(There’s a momentary silence; Neufeld and Rhodes are stunned by Villeroy’s outburst.)

RHODES:  I think you’re exaggerating, Carl.

VILLEROY:  You should see yourself on television, Axel.  You’re the epitome of a smug, complacent, self-congratulatory bureaucrat.  That’s not entirely your own fault, I admit.  You’re a professional campaign manager, like me, and you have no business governing and certainly no business going on television and speaking for the President.  Someone was stupid enough to let you in after the election was over.  But on television?  You’re awful – just awful.

RHODES:  This sounds personal, Carl.

VILLEROY:  Damn right it’s personal, Axel.  I’ve spent my entire career trying to get good people like your boss elected to office, and then people like you come along and fail to serve him with even a hint of competence and people like her come along and act like everything he’s done is no good and that’s why a guy like Romney – a guy who believes in absolutely nothing aside from his personal ambition – now has a good chance of beating our guy’s ass in November and sending him back to Chicago in disgrace.  Personal?  Yeah, Axel, it’s personal.  You, liberal girl:  what’s your beef with the President?

NEUFELD:  Stop calling me that.

VILLEROY:  You see?  I just asked you to state your case in front of a guy who talks to the President every day and all you can do is complain about what I called you.  This is your big chance, darlin’ – a chance to tell it to someone outside the 3000 people who read that asinine magazine you pontificate for.  Here’s your big chance to play before one of the big boys.  You’re on; don’t blow it.

(She looks to Rhodes, who looks like he’d prefer undergoing a prostate exam.  Nevertheless, he gestures for her to speak.)

NEUFELD:  Well, here at home, we’re not happy with the stimulus.  It was too small and didn’t spend enough money.  We think the President should go back to Congress and seek another billion dollars.  We think your phasing out of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been too slow.  We think the health care plan doesn’t provide enough help to enough people, lets employers off the hook, and is too generous to insurers, doctors, and hospitals.  We think you’ve been too nice to the big banks and the big corporations and been cold and unforgiving to honest working people who either were conned into mortgages they couldn’t afford or lost their jobs through no fault of their own.  You failed to create government jobs to make up for the loss of jobs in the private sector.  Whenever you ask for sacrifice because of the weak economy, you only ask the poor and working-class people and the middle class to make sacrifices; you never ask for any sacrifice from upper-income earners.  We think you broke your promise to close the prison camp in Guantanamo, you still haven’t withdrawn all our people from Afghanistan, you’ve been too soft on Israel and Pakistan, and you’ve done nothing to stop the outsourcing of American jobs.

VILLEROY:  You see?  Except for the mortgages and the outsourcing, no one but your little group of ivory-tower elitists gives a damn about any of those issues and no one even hears what you have to say about them, but the net effect is to create the impression that it’s okay for the right to dislike the President because even the left dislikes him.  You people are killing his chances for re-election and (he turns and points to Rhodes) you people just sit there with your hands in your pants and don’t say or do anything about it.  Let me ask you something, girly:  if the election were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?

NEUFELD:  The President.

VILLEROY:  You sure?

NEUFELD:  Of course.

VILLEROY:  I ask because you and your people come across as unhappy enough with the President that you might consider not voting for him.

NEUFELD:  No, we’re on board.

VILLEROY (raising his voice):  Then when are you and your people going to start acting like it?  When do you shut up about what you don’t like and start talking about what you do?

(Rhodes shakes his head in agreement.  Villeroy notices.)

And you, hand-in-the-pants:  when do you remember that this is a winner-take-all competition and start fighting back?  When do you stop talking about how your opponent’s business didn’t achieve goals it never set and start talking about why your guy’s better suited to run the country for the next four years?

RHODES:  What do you want us to do, Carl?

VILLEROY:  I want you to grow a pair, Axel.  I want you to stop assuming that people know what you’ve accomplished in office, because all the polling says they don’t, and start telling them how your guy is making it better.  I want you to tell people why the other guy’s ideas are wrong for the country and I want you to do it without using the word “Bain” because people are tired of hear about Bain and they’ll never understand what Bain actually does.

(The door opens and in walks Mallory Barrett, a law school classmate of the President who is serving as his eyes and ears in the Chicago campaign office.  While she has no formal position in the campaign and no one reports to her, everyone understands that she has the President’s ear like no one else, other than his wife, and is enormously influential.)

BARRETT:  Things getting a little heated in here, Axel?

RHODES (hesitating for a just a moment):  Just an honest exchange of ideas, Mallory.

BARRETT:  Jessica, Carl, I gather you’re not happy with the campaign strategy.

(Neither of them speaks)

Come on, you didn’t come all this way not to say what’s on your mind.  Jessica?

NEUFELD:  I think the President has abandoned too many of the ideas that he expressed in the campaign four years ago.  We all know he never should have won that election, but he did, and easily, because people were truly inspired by his vision for the country.  But once he got in office he seemed to abandon most of those ideas, and the ones he didn’t abandon he compromised on.

BARRETT:  And you think he shouldn’t have compromised?

NEUFELD:  That’s one of the things we were discussing before.  I recognize the need to compromise, but you don’t start a negotiation with your compromise position.  You negotiate first, then compromise when necessary.  You didn’t compromise; you went straight to surrender.

BARRETT:  I don’t entirely agree, but I don’t entirely disagree, either.  What about you, Carl?  I’m not familiar with political discussions where you’re not doing most of the talking.

VILLEROY:  A variation on the theme, but I agree with Jessica:  you guys never fought.  This bipartisan stuff is a lot of bullshit; it takes two sides to be bipartisan and you don’t even have one.  Fighting behind the scenes doesn’t count.  You have to fight publicly, and fight hard.  You never enlisted the public in that fight, either.  They’re the ones who endorsed your principles, but you never asked them to lobby their elected officials for the things they said they wanted.  You also need to communicate relentlessly.  You have to communicate your goals, communicate your means, communicate your accomplishments.

You made a terrible mistake bringing professional campaign managers into the White House.  I should know; I’m one of them, and we’re not fit to govern.  The skills just aren’t the same.  I understand that the thinking was that it’s a never-ending campaign so let’s hire a professional campaigner, but it’s a different kind of campaign and the people you have waging it are all wrong for that kind of work.  Every time someone like Axel goes on television and speaks for the President, I cringe – and so do a lot of people who like the President.  You’ve utterly failed to explain your successes, and even the people who still plan to vote for him can’t articulate why.  ‘Because he’s better than the other guy’ is not what you want after nearly four years in office, but that’s all you’ve given them.  You don’t communicate, you don’t explain, you don’t fight, and that’s why you don’t have any confidence about the outcome now, even though Axel here says you’ll be pulling away by November.  You should be cruising, but instead, you’re fighting for your lives.  You need to be aggressive, not complacent, but I don’t see any signs of aggressiveness.

BARRETT:  Interesting.  I’d like to hear more.  Axel, why don’t you leave me to talk to Jessica and Carl for a while.

RHODES:  But Mallory…

BARRETT:  Thank you, Axel.

(RHODES reluctantly leaves.  Neufeld and Villeroy pull their chairs closer to Barrett, who leans forward.  They start to talk)

 

 

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