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Obama One Year Later: The Audacity of Winning vs. The Timidity of Governing

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I had arranged to meet David Plouffe on Saturday afternoon at a Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington. The night before, a copy of his new book, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, was waiting for me when I checked into my hotel at midnight. I flipped it open, read a few lines and was hooked. I spent the rest of the night reading it.

Plouffe has written the most important political book of the year (for reasons I'll get to in a moment). It's also completely gripping. It reads like a thriller. Even though you know how it ends, you quickly get caught up in every twist and turn of perhaps the most remarkable campaign in American history.

Along the way, I found myself tearing up when I read about the campaign volunteer who had scrimped and saved ("Grabbed some ramen on the weekends... Didn't take the girl to a movie") so he could donate ten dollars to Obama, and laughed at the funny-in-retrospect tales from the trail (like David Axelrod's BlackBerry crashing at a crucial moment because of glazed donut getting stuck in the trackwheel.)

But it's not the insider look at the past that makes the book so important. It's what it shows us about the present -- and the effect it could have on the future.

Plouffe's book arrives at a crossroads moment for the administration -- exactly one year after the election, and one year before the 2010 midterms. A lot has happened in that year, as the audacity of winning has given way to the timidity of governing. But in recounting how the campaign team -- and the candidate -- not only had the audacity to win but was able to keep that audacity alive, day in and day out over the long nearly-two-year slog of the campaign, Plouffe has also shown the Obama White House the way forward.

The book is a powerful reminder of what the country voted for last year -- and could serve as the trigger for Obama and his team to refocus and remember why the election mattered so much.

Most of the attention the book has gotten so far has focused on the so-called "sexy" parts -- the saga of Reverend Wright, the furor over Bittergate, how Obama came to pick Biden over Hillary for VP. All of which is serving to obscure the key takeaway from the book: the fact that everything in the campaign flowed, as Plouffe puts it, from Obama's conviction that "the country needed deep, fundamental change; Washington wasn't thinking long-term... the special interests and lobbyists had too much power, and the American people needed to once again trust and engage in their democracy."

Plouffe hits this theme again and again in the book. And it's the first thing we talked about when we met (me looking bleary-eyed from my night of reading and underlining and writing in the margins; Plouffe looking relaxed and refreshed, a far-cry from the profoundly exhausted look he had the last time I saw him, in the midst of the presidential run).

The book is "not a victory lap," he tells me. "It's a reminder of how and why we won. We never forgot why we were running. That was our North Star. And we held that North Star in our sights at all times. We made many mistakes along the way, but we always remembered that we were running because, as Barack put it, the dream so many generations had fought for was slipping away."

Axelrod -- or "Ax" as Plouffe refers to him throughout the book -- summed up at the beginning of the campaign the core elements of the message that would guide them: "change versus a broken status quo; people versus the special interests; a politics that would lift people and the country up; and a president who would not forget the middle class."

Running a different kind of campaign became "shorthand" for the campaign. Whenever they found themselves drifting towards standard political behavior, they'd ask themselves: "If we do this, how is that running a different kind of campaign?"

As Plouffe told me: "We made sure that everyone we hired internalized our core message and defaulted to those touch points when making decisions. For our break-the-rules strategy to work, we all had to remain faithful to its principles all the time."

Plouffe kept returning to the mistakes they made, but only to highlight the campaign's saving grace -- its ability to course-correct, a vital survival mechanism for any successful campaign. Or successful White House.

Early in the book, Plouffe describes a tense meeting with the candidate in April 2007, after it became clear that Obama was having a hard time connecting with voters turning out to see him. Ax, Plouffe, and Peter Rouse were brutally honest with him. And the candidate agreed about the need "to find his authentic voice and reconnect with the fundamental concerns that drew him into the race in the first place. He had run to challenge the bankrupt and conventional politics of Washington, not master it."

Then there was the senior staff meeting after their dismal showing in Pennsylvania, where Obama announced: "I want us to get our mojo back. We've got to remember who we are."

Plouffe also mentions the difficult decision made right before the Iowa primary to decline John Kerry's offer to endorse Obama -- a move campaign insiders felt was the wrong message to send to voters looking for change. "In the end," writes Plouffe, "the tough decision we made was unquestionably the correct one. Just about every time we took the road less traveled, we benefited."

That included the decision, which Plouffe fought hard for, to have the campaign headquartered in Chicago because "D.C. is a swamp of conventional wisdom and insiders that can suck a campaign down, and we needed to think differently." Maybe the answer to the last nine months is to move the White House to Chicago.

Indeed, reading the book, I often found myself wondering what Candidate Obama would think of President Obama. Would he look at what the White House is doing and say, "that's what I and my supporters worked so hard for?"

How did the candidate who got into the race because he'd decided that "the core leadership had turned rotten" and that "the people were getting hosed" become the president who has decided that the American people can only have as much change as Olympia Snowe will allow?

How did the candidate who told a stadium of supporters in Denver that "the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result" become the president who has surrounded himself with the same old players trying the same old politics, expecting a different result?

How could a president whose North Star as a candidate was that he "would not forget the middle class" choose as his chief economic advisor a man who recently argued against extending unemployment benefits in the middle of the worst economic times since the Great Depression?

I'm referring, of course, to Larry Summers. According to a White House official I spoke with -- later confirmed by sources in the White House and on the Hill -- Summers was against the extension. And it took a lot of Congressional pushing back behind the scenes for the president to overrule him.

And, according to another senior White House official, when foreclosures or job numbers come up at the regular White House morning meeting, Summers' response is that nothing can be done. Nothing can be done about skyrocketing foreclosures or lost jobs.

Nothing can be done -- pretty much the opposite of "Yes we can," isn't it?

According to Plouffe, "reform is in Obama's DNA." Then how do you have in your inner circle a man who has "nothing can be done" in his DNA? Unless, of course, the problem on the table has to do with Wall Street, in which case "everything can be done, has been done, and will be done."

Obviously, an administration needs to hire people who weren't part of the campaign. But the danger comes in hiring those who don't even share the goals of the campaign. That's why The Audacity to Win is so desperately needed right now.

It reminds us that, not that long ago, the conventional wisdom was that Candidate Obama didn't have a chance and that Hillary Clinton's nomination was inevitable. That's the same conventional wisdom that tells us that President Obama doesn't have a chance at really changing things and that the ultimate victory of the entrenched special interests is inevitable.

But the Obama campaign didn't buy into the conventional wisdom then: "We had a mountain named Hillary Clinton in our path that we had to find some way to scale, get around, or blow a hole through," writes Plouffe. And the Obama White House doesn't have to give into the conventional wisdom now. It just has to get its mojo back.

One way the White House can do this is to have everyone there read Plouffe's book, filled as it is with page after page after page of reminders of who put Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

"We knew who we were," writes Plouffe, "a grassroots campaign to the core. We started with our supporters on the ground and they led us to victory." This grassroots effort "was a prime motivator for Obama to run, the belief that the American people needed to reengage in their civic life... Obama felt in his gut that if properly motivated, a committed grassroots army could be a powerful force. Over time, the volunteers became the pillars that held the whole enterprise aloft."

I asked Plouffe what happened to the 13 million people on the campaign's email list -- a list he compares to having "our own television network, only better, because we communicated directly with no filter to what would amount to about 20 percent of the total number of votes we would need to win."

"Volunteers have made 300,000 calls to Congress to support the president's health care plan, and held thousands of events around the country," he told me. "But it's hard to maintain the intensity of the engagement."

Of course it's hard. But, as he puts it in the book, "Obama had ignited something very powerful in young people throughout the country. If that spark could be preserved, I was convinced we'd be a much stronger country for it."

And no amount of rationalizing and sugarcoating can change the fact that the spark has not been preserved. And that we are a less strong country for it.

One of the reasons Plouffe gives in the book for the campaign deciding to forgo public funding was that, as he writes, "most painfully, taking the federal funds meant losing control of our secret weapon: we would have to largely outsource our entire grassroots ground campaign to the DNC." Which is exactly where the grassroots list -- rebranded as Organization for America -- is housed now. Painfully.

Plouffe talks about how the Obama team knew that in order to win, it would have to "attain the holy grail of politics -- a fundamentally altered electorate. We had to expand the electorate or we were cooked." With the help of their grassroots army, they did just that. Among people who had never voted before -- or who hadn't voted for a long time -- 71 percent voted for Obama.

Plouffe feels genuinely connected to the movement he helped unleash. "So many of the people," he told me, "who gave their heart and soul to the campaign were people who had given up on the system because they no longer believed they could trust politicians to deliver or really change anything. It is imperative for our democracy that these people are not disappointed. If they become disillusioned, they won't be coming back for a long while."

"I feel such an obligation to them," Obama told Plouffe during the campaign. "They believe in me. In us. In themselves. What keeps me going day after day? Besides a clear sense of why I am running for president, it's them, our volunteers. It is a special thing we've built here and I don't want to let them down."

I asked Plouffe if the president had read the book. "He read a couple of sections in it," he replied, "and even discovered a couple of things he didn't know."

Well, if the president wants to make sure he doesn't let down the millions who believed he really would change the rotten system, he should read the The Audacity to Win from beginning to end -- and rediscover a whole host of things he knows, but seems to have forgotten.

Then he can complete the journey from The Audacity of Hope and The Audacity To Win to The Audacity to Govern.

So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.

Around the Web

Video: In Iowa, Obama One Year After - The Caucus Blog - NYTimes.com

'Change is hard': Obama one year on from election - Yahoo! News

Obama One Year Later: What's Changed? - ABC News

King: One year after Obama's victory - CNN.com

One year after his election, what has Obama achieved? | csmonitor.com

What's Obama made of?