“The Secret Obama Plan”

November 9, 2011

from CHAPTER 2 of Branding Obamessiah

David Axelrod helped hatch the plan to elect Obama to the White House and became President Obama's senior advisor.

O bama’s ascendancy went according to “The Plan.” That was the code name that Team Obama gave to the course they laid out for their newly minted US senator one cold winter evening in February 2005. Obama huddled together with them in a four-hour tactical meeting fueled by pepperoni pizza. The team discussed the future of their product and crafted a strategy to sell the Obama “brand.” 5 The meeting occurred only weeks after Obama had been sworn into the US Senate. “What’s unique about Obama is that he’s done it because he’s cool. Because he’s new,” commented Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. Obama became a national phenomenon overnight. Most political celebrities have waited their turn in line on Capitol Hill, earning their ascended status only after prolonged ordeals. But Obama rocketed into the nation’s elite representative club and then into the White House on fumes.

Smoke filled the enclave that evening in 2005 when political consultant David Axelrod, Democratic press secretary and political advisor Robert Gibbs, and Capitol Hill factotum Pete Rouse consulted with Obama to chart his next move. The press release from behind those closed doors described a “‘2010–2012–2016’ plan: a potential bid for governor or re-election to the Senate in 2010, followed by a bid for the White House as soon as 2012 or, if not, 2016.” Axelrod carefully emphasized that his client wanted to maintain “a low-profile” so as not to seem “too eager for the bright lights.” 6 When pressed by the Chicago media the day after the election, Obama had flatly denied any plans to run for the Oval Office in 2008. But, according to author David Mendell, “his advisors knew that he had a shot at being a vice-presidential selection or perhaps an outside chance at running for president as early as 2008.” History, noted Mendell, “was full of politicians who had reversed those kinds of denials about career advancement.” 7

“T he Plan” laid out Obama’s goals and objectives for his first two years in the Senate. It was not written in stone, but formalized on a computer file that was consistently amended and updated as political conditions changed. Obama’s first quarter would, in addition to general housekeeping like hiring Senate staff and learning the names and faces of the new Washington crowd, focus on writing his second self-promotional book and launching a fund-raising committee. Obama would appear to be pulling back from the spotlight—“letting the air out of the balloon,” he called it—while fully preparing to inflate his campaign it as soon as possible with a book-length autobiographical campaign tract and plenty of cash. 8 Reports of that first  strategy session and of the many that followed it are spotty, but all of Obama’s advisors “insisted on anonymity” and would not reveal details apart from a general, glossy narrative. 9 It was paramount for Team Obama not only to keep its plans under wraps, but to keep his story in line with the narrative he began telling on the national stage; Obama proclaimed himself to be the fortunate son of “a magical place” that served as “a beacon of freedom and opportunity” to those who showed “hard work and perseverance.” Obama described himself as a kind of modern-day Horatio Alger who, through luck and mostly pluck, personified the American dream. According to his political autobiography, Obama became a humble rookie senator who privileged hard work over headlines and labored to be “a unifier and consensus builder, an almost postpolitical [ sic ] leader.” 10 In other words, he was not a politician.

“The Plan” emphasized the same factors that played into Obama landing his pivotal keynote gig at the Democratic National Convention just six months before Team Obama first convened. Obama’s star-making role at the 2004 Convention was no half-court toss with three seconds left on the buzzer, or as Obama described it, “a mystery.” 11 It was a carefully calculated and well-practiced shot made to sink the hole. Axelrod had fiercely lobbied on Obama’s behalf, pushing the case that “he was a transcendent figure who could deliver a unifying message and had just won a spectacular victory.” 12 John Kerry and the Democratic hit-makers in 2004 had picked Obama over his main rival, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, for three primary reasons. He was a fresh face who “inspired hope.” He was from the Midwest with a biracial pedigree. And he would boost his chances of winning the much-needed US Senate seat in Illinois in the midterm election with the national exposure. 13 Kerry and the Democratic elite saw Obama as more than just a simple novelty. Obama could take back a Senate seat from the Republicans with a win. He was black, but not deeply black like democratic media stars Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But above all, the Democrats’ power brokers chose Obama for his ability to project “the audacity of hope.”

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