Since May, a steady trickle of aides has left the White House for a more blustery climate, temporary apartments and minimal presidential perks. They are now reassembled here in President Obama’s home town as his 2012 campaign staff, facing a grim political environment shaped by the worst economic outlook in decades and a dismal job-approval rating for the commander in chief.
Yet compared with their colleagues in Washington, the Chicago crew members are living the good life. And not just because they have a putting green and a ping-pong table in the middle of the office.
Unshackled from the day-to-day machinations of governing, and unburdened by the partisan intensity of official Washington, the Chicago team is energized by the clarity of its purpose: getting Obama reelected. That means focusing not on Washington, but on laying the campaign groundwork in the key battleground states that will decide the contest.
That also means working on issues, large and small, in corners of the country far removed from Washington: aiding a state Senate race in eastern Iowa; helping to coordinate a volunteer effort to elect a Democratic mayor in Tucson; recruiting a nationwide stable of lawyers in preparation for possible lawsuits and voter-registration fights from Florida to Wisconsin.
In contrast to the Republican primary campaign, which is dominating the media’s attention, the Obama reelection effort is relatively under the radar. Staff members at the Chicago headquarters seem almost oblivious to the inside-the-Beltway issues consuming the presidency.
“Washington is on pins and needles about the day-to-day congressional negotiations,” campaign manager Jim Messina said recently, hundreds of miles away from the capital, where lawmakers were still mired in talks about the national debt.
Gesturing toward a 50,000-square-foot office with more than 100 young operatives hunched over laptops, Messina said: “I bet you there’s not two people in that room who are following that.”
The decision to move to Chicago was reflexive for the Obama crew, which has always maintained a high degree of nostalgia about the 2008 operation there. But it has not been without problems. It has meant moving numerous aides halfway across the country — and not even to a swing state — only to fly them back to Washington every week or two for strategy meetings.
One obvious risk is that being in Chicago could make it tempting to try to rerun the 2008 insurgency playbook now, when Obama is a monumental figure.
And beyond the sentimental value, Chicago seems to offer little in the way of political advantages. The phrase “Chicago politics” carries connotations of a kind of insider dealing that the president would want to avoid in a year of anti-incumbency. Some Democratic operatives are skeptical about the political wisdom of the move to the city.
But there are less obvious upsides, aides say. They have time to follow minute electoral developments nationwide that could be important to the outcome next year. In Florida, for example, Republican officials have instituted new rules to curb early voting and restrict how groups register voters. Obama officials have begun to respond, in part with a huge volunteer education drive about the requirements.
“We have a comprehensive, aggressive program for protecting the right to vote,” said Bob Bauer, who was White House counsel before becoming the campaign’s attorney. “Yes, Republicans around the country are mounting a systematic attack on that right. No, they won’t succeed.”
In Ohio, some of the Obama campaign’s technical work in swing states has spilled into view. Staff members recruited more than 250 volunteers in the final weeks of a referendum effort to repeal a curb on public workers’ collective-bargaining rights. Although unions did even more of the work to repeal the law, the effort helped the Obama operation test its mobilization strategy in a key state more than a year before Election Day.
Now it has other state efforts to worry about. In Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers and the governor are seeking to change the way the state’s electoral college votes are awarded, proposing to allocate them according to wins in individual congressional districts, rather than giving all 20 votes to whoever wins the state. Pennsylvania has gone for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1992.
In Colorado, a state vital to the Obama reelection strategy, disputes have raged over whether voters who have not participated in recent elections should be mailed a ballot, with the Republican secretary of state pressing officials to exclude people who skipped an election cycle. In almost every circumstance, fewer eligible voters would be bad news for the Obama campaign, which is considering where to file lawsuits and where to deploy volunteers.
Voter-targeting efforts are underway as well. Last week, the campaign introduced “Women for Obama,” a group started by first lady Michelle Obama that strategists hope will capitalize on what aides described as a recent surge in the number of women volunteering for the campaign.
The greatest advantage for Obama’s team appears to be the psychic distance from day-to-day Washington, where White House briefings have centered around buzzwords such as “sequester” (as in the severe cuts that could come now that congressional negotiators were unable to reach a debt deal); “Keystone Pipeline” (as in the oil pipeline that would have run from Canada to Texas before the administration delayed it); and “Greece.”
Members of the Chicago team know all too well what they are missing — and do not miss it. In addition to Messina, who served as deputy chief of staff, recent transplants include deputy campaign manager Julianna Smoot, who was White House social secretary, and Jen O’Malley Dillon, who was executive director of the Democratic National Committee and is now also a deputy campaign manager.
A third deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, is scheduled to arrive this month after she leaves her White House job. Peter Newell, who ran the White House travel office, is now a special assistant to Messina. Three members of the White House press office are now in important roles: Ben LaBolt as press secretary, Katie Hogan as his deputy, and Ben Finkenbinder as head of the Midwestern regional desk.
Senior adviser David Axelrod is in close proximity, having moved back home this year. So is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, who is helping the campaign. Last Saturday, he delivered a keynote address to Iowa Democrats in Des Moines.
The participants in the process are saying it is working as well as any operation divided between two cities: The disagreements are not between the West Wing and the Chicago leadership, but rather at the staff level. “We’ve all had each other’s jobs,” one senior adviser said. “There is a shorthand. We get criticized a lot for being too insular. The one place where it is helpful is this.”