The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory
by David Plouffe; published by Viking Books (November, 2009)
For two years, Mom, Dad, and millions like them loved their country enough to change it.
Many analysts agree that President Obama conducted a primary and general election campaign without precedent in skill and effectiveness. The exercise was managed by David Plouffe, an exceptionally astute, inventive, and disciplined professional operative. Mr. Plouffe has written an extensive debrief on the campaign’s goals, tactics, and personnel, and a thoughtful review of the teaching the experience provides for the subculture of election specialists and, more broadly, for our nation.
The Audacity to Win makes it clear that the hallmarks of the campaign were established almost in their entirety from the outset. It was shaped by its leaders’ thorough understanding of the electorate’s yearning for change: change not simply in an administration and its policies, but in all persons’ attitudes, actions, and standards of conduct and the entire manner in which power is organized in the United States.
Barack Obama articulated transcendently well this yearning for transformation. He also embodied it. The campaign recognized this conjunction of a social phenomenon with its leading personality, and built all its strategies around it.
Chief among these were the decisions to create and sustain a series of interrelated change drivers:
- Inspire grassroots volunteerism on a scale never before seen in presidential politics
- Achieve new voter registration and voter turnout on a scale never before accomplished
- Utilize new technologies, especially the Internet, to communicate directly with the electorate, attract donations, and trigger volunteerism
- Campaign aggressively for every attainable delegate vote and, later, each achievable electoral college vote
- Instill selflessness, unity, discipline, and civility throughout the staff at all levels
- Interact primarily and directly with the electorate, rather than political professionals and media pundits
- Cultivate and adhere to the candidate’s and the campaign’s highest, most pure instincts rather than temporal expediency
Each of these commitments fertilized all the others. The campaign grew into a domestic and international populist movement beyond anyone’s expectations. It led eventually, of course, to Mr. Obama’s historic election.
Many memoirs function as an encomium to self. The events under review could not have transpired, the memoirist usually proclaims, were it not for me. Many memoirs’ barely concealed purpose is to position the author to be hired repeatedly to reprise the triumph.
Plouffe has no apparent ulterior motive. He is intrigued and moved by the events he helped lead. He celebrates every principal protagonist other than himself. In particular, he crafts sincere paeans to the numberless individuals who comprised the campaign’s passionate, inexhaustible, and immensely effective corps of volunteers. And he mounts a sustained effort to help us understand precisely how and specifically why the campaign’s ideals, strategies, and methods worked so well. He also analyzes with merciless candor his own mistakes, his colleagues’ errors, and Mr. Obama’s rare gaffes.
Plouffe emerges as a sophisticated and shrewd scholar of electoral politics in America, an eminently skillful manager of people and campaign process, a combative field commander, and an exceptionally centered, unassuming, decent, and trustworthy man. He is especially cogent about the cost modern American campaigning exacts on participants’ lives, and touching in honoring the unsung heroism of spouses and children.
He is also cogent about the prodigious financial cost of American electoral politics. The Audacity to Win shows us in detail the amount of money that is needed to conduct a credible contemporary presidential campaign. The sum is astonishing. The Obama campaign’s ability to excite an unparalleled number of donors to gift an unparalleled quantity of cash to this initially quixotic undertaking is a marker of the candidate’s unique impact upon our nation’s body politic.
This is also, though, a marker cautionary in the extreme. An electoral system that requires its prospective leaders to garner contributions on so massive a degree mandates a constancy of supplication, perpetuity of beseeching, and near certainty of moral indebtedness or forced obligation. Few persons, maybe none, can seek and obtain funding of this magnitude without becoming hostage to the interests and will of its donors. Plouffe is importantly successful in revealing how our election process and its behemoth price tag virtually invite corruption from all but the most conscientious and most independently empowered leaders. The American people countenance this unconscionable situation at our peril.
Plouffe is much less successful in revealing the content of his own and other leaders’ mind and spirit. We learn almost nothing complex or nuanced about what it feels like to engage an insurgent political campaign of this magnitude; what it feels like to help form and then ride an epical cultural and social occurrence; what it feels like to envision, tap, and then manage multiple generations’ primal needs and emotions; what it feels like crucially to aid and ultimately help raise to power an authentic genius.
David Plouffe is a singularly distinguished political sociologist and campaign director. But he is not by endowment or training an author. The Audacity to Win surfaces a potentially major subject for another writer’s more profoundly insightful and interpretive authorship.
We will read this book perhaps primarily to gain insight into the character and consciousness of Barack Obama. The work does not often place President Obama on center stage. It is interested in campaign much more than in character, in process much more than personality. However, on each occasion that he does enter the pages our president appears to be a strikingly intelligent, reasonable, honest, calm, and unpretentious person.
Plouffe gives especially revealing attention to President Obama’s masterful speech on race relations in response to the several contretemps surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons; the integrity and grace with which he manages his ascent into fame; the readiness with which he assumes fault and deflects blame away from others; and the wisdom and confidence with which he handles his swift transition from improbable candidate to frontrunner to president-elect to commander-in-chief. These portraits, like Plouffe’s portrait of himself, are frustratingly exterior in their vantage point and content. Yet they suggest that individual around whom this campaign was organized is entirely worthy of the hopes he has initiated and energized.
The Audacity to Win is devoid of suspense, for we know the narrative’s outcome in advance. Yet it is a gripping book, insightful, far-ranging, provocative, and fun. Readers who enjoyed the grandly fictive qualities of The West Wing will find this work almost equally addictive for its address of the actual.
This review initially appeared in the New York Journal of Book Reviews, a new online literary review.
Please see: www.nyjournalofbooks.com