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June 1, 2010

This book was recommended to me by one of my favorite co-workers as an example of great strategic planning. The creation of the Obama brand should be a class in business and advertising programs everywhere.

David Plouffe and David Axelrod knew that the road to the White House would have to go through Hillary Clinton and her political juggernaut. The Clinton machine was old-school politics. The Obama campaign would not be able to out-Clinton the Clintons. They would have to do things differently.

At the heart of the Obama campaign was a massive grassroots movement, made up of mostly young, inexperienced but enthusiastic volunteers, built around a thoughtful, sophisticated candidate and a simple message: Change. These carefully balanced elements—the man and the motto—defined Brand Obama and guided its actions, reactions and attitude. With the brand defined, the campaign team was able to empower people at the grassroots level to make decisions. In short, they had a clearly defined brand character and a disciplined strategy, and everything else fell from that.

The theme of “change” (Obama was unsure at first—possibly the most important time he trusted someone was when he agreed to use it as a slogan), was simple, understandable, and helped define not just what the campaign stood for but how it was conducted. They disregarded a lot of conventional campaign wisdom, relied heavily on social media for support and fundraising, trusted their own obsessive number-crunching over the polls, understood exactly what they would need to achieve to win, and stayed out of the mud as much as possible.

Early on, the campaign focused on the Iowa primary—if they couldn’t make it competitive in Iowa, they wouldn’t be able to make it competitive the rest of the way. Although Plouffe never says it, it seems like the Clintons might have underestimated the Obama campaign from the start. By the time the Clintons came to grips with the fact that it was going to be a real race, Obama’s grassroots effort was paying off. After Iowa, they had an entrenched army with a head start in many of the other key states. Strangely, even as political as she is, I found myself respecting Hillary more after this book—for her perseverance and grit, if nothing else.

After Obama won the nomination, it’s a bit anticlimactic. McCain’s camp wasn’t nearly as experienced or savvy as Clinton’s, McCain didn’t convey the gravitas of Obama, and his campaign didn’t have the grass roots support structure in place. Aside from some of the entertaining bits, mostly courtesy of “Hurricane Sarah,” the race was more or less over after the primary. Still, the Obama campaign maintained their discipline, assuming nothing and underestimating nobody.

The Audacity to Win is an interesting book on several levels. It gives an inside(ish) look at Obama himself. Of course, Plouffe was the primary architect of Brand Obama, so there’s no dirt under the fingernails—Obama’s drive, discipline and idealism all feel very much in line with the character he’s crafted—but the way Obama was willing to trust his people and accept blame when appropriate were also admirable. Plouffe obviously holds Obama in high regard, but everything he says about Obama’s character feels pretty genuine.

Finally, although the number of times Plouffe refers to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as a “historic” moment and revels in the monumental achievement of the win is a little annoying, it was both of those things—a historic moment and monumental achievement. Even knowing the outcome of the campaign, it was fun to hear it recounted and remember all the minor plotlines. I can’t imagine many Obama haters being able to stomach this ride, but it was inarguably one of the best-run presidential campaigns ever. Historic indeed.


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