As Republicans dither, debating who is and who isn’t in the 2012 race for the White House, President Obama and his team are moving swiftly to dive into the business of winning reelection.
No office space has yet been rented. No committee has been formed. No official announcement date has been locked down. But by sometime next month, the president’s team is likely to be a functioning, legal entity with a plan.
That should send a message to potential Republican candidates, who have spent the winter trying to convince themselves that they can wait and wait and perhaps wait some more before they get moving. Obama’s team believes otherwise. They know what time and effort are required to build a robust organization capable of winning a general election – and how important the work done this year will be.
The president has already made the pivot. After the midterm shellacking, he has repositioned himself, moving to the center when needed (the tax deal with the Republicans late last year) while keeping a close eye on his restive liberal base (winning the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and announcing that his Justice Department would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act).
He has rebuilt his White House around his new chief of staff, Bill Daley, and his 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, with Vice President Biden continuing to play a central role. The new White House team is steadier and more strategically focused than it was before the midterms – although whether it can win the budget battles with congressional Republicans is another matter.
The next piece to fall into place will be the campaign operation. The Chicago-based reelection team will be under the direction of campaign manager Jim Messina, who recently stepped down as White House deputy chief of staff. David Axelrod, who has returned to Chicago after two years as senior adviser to the president, will again play the central role he did four years ago.
In due course, the Obama campaign operation will be fully staffed and humming. At this point, it has studied the reelection campaigns of previous presidents. The campaign advisers understand their challenges and have ideas about how to deal with them.
Obama’s team, anticipating a closely fought general election, is focused on the key components of campaign machinery: money, organization and strategy. (The message was laid out in the president’s State of the Union address – win the future – and will evolve with events).
Start with money. Obama raised about $750 million in his 2008 campaign, an astounding amount. There has been talk, still speculative, that he might be the first $1 billion candidate in 2012.
While grass-roots money will continue to be significant, one of the Obama team’s first priorities is to build up its stable of major donors and fundraisers. Messina is already at work on this task. A sign of the importance attached to major donors is the designation of Julianna Smoot, the 2008 finance director who served briefly as White House social secretary, as one of two deputy campaign managers for the reelection.
The other deputy campaign manager is Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who will move from her post at the Democratic National Committee to oversee the rebuilding of Obama’s grass-roots army.
Few campaigns have ever been as devoted to grass-roots organization as Obama’s. Perhaps inspired by the president’s roots as a community organizer, his political operation is infused with almost missionary zeal about the power of people coming together – aided by new technology and social-networking resources.
The Obama team has decided it will not give Republicans a free pass to criticize the president as they fight over their nomination. The president’s reelection committee plans to put its own organizations into the early primary and caucus states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
“We can’t cede the playing field,” one adviser said. “We can’t just play general election. So we’re going to have to organize on the ground in early states.”
Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada all qualify as important general election battlegrounds. South Carolina is likely to fall into the Republican column in 2012, but with the Democratic convention scheduled for North Carolina, a presence in South Carolina would signal the Obama team’s determination to make itself a force in at least some Southern states.
But the team will also start work in other critically important states – Pennsylvania, for example. Obama lost the primary there to Hillary Rodham Clinton. He won the state in the general election over John McCain. But since then, the Democrats have been decimated there.
In November, Democrats lost the governor’s mansion, a Senate seat and several House seats. Gone is former governor Ed Rendell, who though a supporter of Clinton’s was tireless in knitting Democrats together in the state. Obama’s advisers see Pennsylvania as a state that will need plenty of organizational effort.
The team plans to spend considerable time listening to activists and volunteers from 2008 and attempting to reengage with them, particularly those whose principal allegiance was to Obama and not to the Democratic Party structure. “Part of the genius in what the president built in ’08 is that people really believed it was theirs,” Messina said.
Strategically, Obama’s team is thinking aggressively. Messina said it is too early to talk seriously about the general election map and targeted states, but at a time when some analysts on the other side suggest that Obama’s options will be more limited in 2012 than in 2008, Messina believes just the opposite.
“I understand the challenges of any reelection campaign,” he said, “but we’re going to go into this with an expanded map and a bigger map in the beginning than in ’08.”
For example, Messina has his eye on states like Arizona, where he argues that McCain’s absence from the ballot will give the president a better chance this time around. But there are others on his list, too, suggesting that just as in 2008, Obama’s team is determined not to let the 2012 election be decided in Ohio and Florida.
“We have many ways to 270,” he said, referring to the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency. “We have more ways to 270 than the other side.”
If Republicans aren’t thinking as strategically about the general election, it’s time they were.