Gibbs, for his part, says that he never gave serious thought to becoming a senior adviser because the role simply didn’t suit his temperament. “I like having a known set of duties,” he tells me. “I don’t want an undefined portfolio.” After recharging his batteries and raking in some bucks on the lecture circuit, Gibbs intends to train his energy on providing Obama’s message operation with something absent in the first two years: an aggressive outside game. “The president said, ‘What is our biggest void here?’ ” recalls another top adviser. “We don’t have a Begala and Carville out there. We’ve got nobody out there in D.C. on cable making our case. Who’s gonna do that? That’s not Axe’s thing—Robert’s that guy. He’s pugnacious, he’s good on TV, we need him out there. What I like to joke is, he’s a better-looking version of James Carville.”
The notion that Axelrod and Gibbs were pushed out further ignores the central roles that both will play in Obama’s reelection bid. Contrary to suggestions that Gibbs might merely be a consultant to the campaign, he assures me that he plans to take a formal full-time job with it—as communications director or a senior strategist. And Axelrod expects to play a part very similar to the one he enacted in 2008, as the self-styled “keeper of the message.” “If we were fired,” Axelrod notes wryly, “putting us to work for the campaign would be a weird assignment.”
Even so, few would dispute that Obama’s communications efforts have been far from perfect. To be fair, some of the problems owed to the nature and the sheer profusion of measures undertaken by the administration. “By necessity, there was such a flurry of activity that went on for almost the whole two years,” says Axelrod, “that we never really got traction on some of our messaging. You talk about all the great things we’ve done—many of them were lost because they were just hidden in this pile of stuff.”
“If we were fired,” Axelrod notes wryly, “putting us to work for the campaign would be a weird assignment.”
But Axelrod admits that many of the wounds were self-inflicted. “No. 1, we overloaded the message circuit board,” he says. “No. 2, so much of it was tied to Congress; I think we were too Hill-centric. A lot of that by necessity, but nonetheless, we came here basically saying that the answers to America’s problems were not all in Washington but out in the country, and that we wanted to do things differently. I think the optics did not speak to that to the degree they should have. No. 3, I think we overused him. There was a period of time in the eighties when the Bears weren’t very good, and they would hand Walter Payton the ball on every play: It was Payton left and Payton right and Payton up the middle. He was the greatest running back of all time, arguably, but still it became kind of a dreary game plan. And, you know, we have one of the great political performers of our time. But I think we degraded that to some degree by using him as much as we did in the ways we did.”
None of these issues escaped the notice of Obama. Nor did the fact that the White House’s relationship with the Washington press corps had grown needlessly fractious and hostile. The decampment of Axelrod and Gibbs—“two of the people closest in the world to him, they’re like his relatives,” says one Obama adjutant—will no doubt be wrenching and disorienting for the president; almost uniquely and almost every day, they have been beside him since the start of his meteoric rise. At the same time, however, their joint exit will provide Obama with an opportunity to hit the reset button.
At the center of that process will be Plouffe. To skeptics regarding the depth of the makeover, his reentry into the president’s orbit amounts, in the words of one Democratic insider, to “switching out the Tweedledees for Tweedledum.” But to Obama, Plouffe represents something different: an essential component of the president’s gambit to move forward by reaching back.
That Plouffe is a kind of postmodern Metternich—a delegate-counting, data-crunching, spreadsheet-wielding political and organizational genius—is an article of faith among the people around Obama, and especially those who served alongside him in 2008. “The things that worked so well on the campaign,” says a senior member of that squad, “were a product of David’s style: to set out strategic goals, measure everything against those goals, and if the things that were being proposed didn’t advance those goals, to say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t do those things.’ It meant sometimes being unpopular, but it advanced the ultimate cause.”
Plouffe’s reintegration into Obamaworld has always been a given. Back in 2008, the campaign manager told the candidate that, with his spouse expecting to give birth just after Election Day, he had no intention of joining the White House in the first half of Obama’s term—but that after what Plouffe now calls a “two-year sabbatical,” he would be there if Obama needed him.