For the moment, Plouffe sits in a windowless cubby across the hall from Axelrod’s lair, readying himself to assume a range of responsibilities more sprawling than anyone’s save Daley. He will be in charge of communications and the press office. He will oversee the political shop. He will work with Jarrett in managing outreach to interest groups and business. And he will be the White House’s de facto chief strategist—an assignment about which he has views so crisp and sharp they could cut glass.
“As you know, I’m a big believer in strategy,” Plouffe tells me. “This is an industry where it’s really hard not to get driven to the tactics, because you’re scored every day more on the tactical, and because internally, you say, ‘We’re proud that we stuck to our strategy today,’ but you get no external ratification of that. You normally get criticism. So part of the goal is to have a longer-term horizon, which is the way [Obama] is instinctively oriented. And I think that’s gonna be a test each and every day: Can you look down the horizon a little bit and not be buffeted by the winds of the moment?”
In this respect, Plouffe, even more than Daley, is the obverse of the former White House chief of staff: Calm, cool, and relentlessly collected, he is the anti-Rahm. It may be that Emanuel’s manic energy and deal-making prowess were essential to Obama’s achievements in the first two years; certainly the president believes that. But he also clearly feels that in the phase ahead, he needs more of the rigor and discipline that Plouffe can provide.
What Plouffe insists—and insists, and insists—he will not be providing is shadow management of Obama’s bid for reelection. “I’m not a big believer in people redoing their jobs; I don’t think you do them as well as you did the first time,” he says. “Obviously, I’m going to have the appropriate interface with the campaign”—which will be managed by outgoing deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, to whom Plouffe is close—“but my operating philosophy, and the president agrees, is that this campaign is not going to be driven out of the White House.”
“Appropriate interface” is one of those innocuous-sounding phrases that can contain multitudes—and here’s betting that the task will keep Plouffe plenty busy, especially with the reelect being headquartered in Chicago. Many politicos believe that putting it there is lunacy; that no amount of geographical hocus-pocus can confer outsider status on an incumbent president; that the benefits of being outside the Beltway are vastly outweighed by the loss of proximity to the principal. But Plouffe avidly argues otherwise: that being in Chicago will enable the campaign to be in closer touch with ordinary voters, and also less prone to leaks or becoming suffused with conventional wisdom. Moreover, he is confident that the tightness of the Obama team is such that proximity matters little. “It isn’t like in 2008, Barack Obama was in our headquarters twice a week holding strategy meetings—he was out campaigning,” Plouffe says. “We made a lot of decisions by conference call, and, you know, it worked out okay.”
Where there’s little disagreement is over the dawning sense that 2012 is shaping up to be a larger lift than the White House expected a year ago. “They are very worried—they weren’t, but they are now,” says a Democrat who has Obama’s ear. “One reason is the total collapse with independents. A second is the loss of support among women. And third, at the end of the day, even though the economy maybe feels a little better, it’s still not gonna be great next year.”
Plouffe’s take is a bit more sanguine, but far from Pollyannaish. “The president right now is sitting with a job approval rating of just over 50 percent, despite the economy,” he says. “In a presidential-election-year electorate, the Latino vote is playing a stronger and stronger role. So from an Electoral College standpoint, right now I’d rather be us than the other side. That said, we live in an enormously close, 50-50 country. So we should assume—and it may be hard for me to take this approach if Sarah Palin is their nominee, but I will try—that whoever runs against us is a deadly serious threat and we’ll be in a very close election. You have to assume that you’re gonna have to do everything right to get 270 electoral votes.”
Doing everything right is a tall order for a president even in the best of times, and with the GOP in control of the House and the unemployment rate at 9.4 percent, these are hardly the best of times for Obama. For all the encouraging glimmers of late, the real test of Obama’s rehabilitation is yet to come—as Bill Clinton, that grand master of political rehab, would surely be the first to tell him (and maybe already has).