This article is adapted from “THE MESSAGE: The Reselling of President Obama” by Richard Wolffe
The Obama campaign looked in the mirror and saw a political problem.
It had researched every piece of its own message machine and found one area that required urgent fixing. Focus group data suggested that the campaign needed more women on television. Women voters would be a dominant part of any victory in a tough political year for the president.
But Obama’s surrogates on TV were mainly men like David Axelrod, the campaign’s senior strategist. So when a request landed from CBS, a young staffer passed on the booking to the highest-profile woman at campaign headquarters in Chicago: Stephanie Cutter.
Cutter was deputy campaign manager. But she had long fretted about her status within Obama’s tight circle, not least after failing to get the job and power she wanted in the West Wing. Her comfort lay in maintaining the tightest grip on the campaign’s communications, including the kind of TV punditry she also found flattering.
Cutter asked Axelrod if it was okay for her to take the slot, and he agreed. An hour later though, he discovered a crucial piece of missing information: CBS had first asked for him.
Axelrod marched into Cutter’s office at the Prudential building to demand an explanation. Why did nobody tell him what was happening? Why was he in the position of looking so bad in front of his media friends?
“CBS asked for me, not you,” Axelrod thundered.
“I didn’t know that,” Cutter explained. “I was asked to do it. I didn’t know what the request was.”
He was convinced that Cutter was trying to steal the limelight. She claimed she wasn’t. Both were unsure of their own status and unsure of their own purpose.
The cracks within the team were not visible to the outside yet but were already giving way to costly missteps and blame.
With just six months to go before Election Day, Cutter headed to Boston–into the heart of Mitt Romney territory–to schedule a campaign event. It was supposed to be a bold move against the enemy but instead made a mockery of team Obama’s planning and strategy.
Before the event, Cutter met with legislators who would provide the backdrop for Axelrod’s speech in front of the statehouse. But the plans had leaked on Twitter the night before and Cutter was concerned enough to send advance staff in case there was trouble. It was only when Cutter and Axelrod neared the statehouse that they could see for themselves what lay ahead. The statehouse was just a few blocks from Romney’s headquarters and there was nothing to stop the GOP candidate’s staff from showing up to make their feelings known.
“There was, as we used to say in my newspaper days, a band of marauding youth standing behind the press,” said Axelrod. “The podium was probably not more than 10 feet from this mob. So I had supporters behind me, these guys in front of me, and I felt like I was in the Roman Colosseum, basically.”
It was too late to walk away. Axelrod tried to enjoy the surreal scene but his halting, intellectual style was no match for the crowd. Protesters held signs telling him to go back to Chicago, that he was a broken record, that they wanted Mitt. They even brought along a dog wearing a Romney T-shirt.
“Axel-fraud,” they chanted as the TV cameras and microphones struggled to track the scripted comments about Romney’s record as governor.
Axelrod tried to be witty, recalling a recent gaffe by Romney’s political consultant Eric Fehrnstrom who said his candidate could treat the end of the primaries like an Etch A Sketch, erasing his positions ahead of the general election. “You can shout down speakers, my friends,” Axelrod retorted, “but it’s hard to Etch A Sketch away the truth.” A supporter lifted up his microphone because it was hard to hear him shout above the din.
Back at the White House, the reaction was less than amused. David Plouffe, who had replaced Axelrod as senior adviser to the president, was angry at the lack of discipline. Obama thought the event was amateurish and he called Axelrod to tell him.
“I see you had an interesting day,” he said drily. Axelrod could only agree.
But Cutter brushed off the White House concern as she brushed off most other criticism. She had survived worse in 2004 on the Kerry campaign and was determined to survive anything else this election could throw at her.
But she underestimated just how deep the concerns were about the Chicago communications and events team. Obama and Plouffe believed the campaign was not performing well and needed adult supervision. Jim Messina who was the campaign manager–and Cutter’s boss–in Chicago agreed, seizing on the event that came to be known in the West Wing as Axelfraud. The televised embarrassment on the steps of the statehouse meant Messina could now rein in Cutter and Axelrod in one swift move.
But at the White House, the fact was that Messina, too, was a source of worry. “The president felt like things needed to be tighter,” said one senior Obama aide. Obama was particularly concerned that the campaign was telegraphing all its moves. “Stop doing that,” he told his White House message team. “We don’t have to tell everyone what we’re doing.”
There was a widespread feeling around the president that the team in Chicago did not share the spirit of 2008, an understanding of the Obama brand, or the kind of cohesion and competence that allowed a freshman senator to win the White House in the first place.
The concerns only intensified in July when Cutter turned up the message on Romney’s record at Bain Capital.
Amid press question about when Romney actually left the firm, the campaign’s communications team staged a conference call with reporters. Cutter hosted the call, but the lead was Bob Bauer, Obama’s former White House counsel and trusted friend, and now his top campaign lawyer. Bauer was an election law expert who maintained a low profile and an understated tone. His answers to any question—about Guantanamo Bay detainees or campaign finance abuses—were almost always precise and fully conceived.
Bauer told reporters that the situation was “serious.” The Boston Globe had reported that Romney’s timeline of departure from Bain did not mesh with his public statements.
Cutter took the argument to its logical conclusion. “Either Mitt Romney, through his own words and his own signature, was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the SEC, which is a felony,” she began. “Or he was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the American people to avoid responsibility for some of the consequences of his investments.”
Among those consequences were the layoffs and outsourcing that his campaign denied with righteous indignation. But the one word that captured the most attention was: felony.
Cutter’s accusation prompted something that was rare from Boston: a same-day response by a senior Romney aide. Campaign manager Matt Rhoades seized on Cutter’s comments to argue that Obama’s team was not conducting itself in a presidential manner.
“President Obama’s campaign hit a new low today when one of its senior advisers made a reckless and unsubstantiated charge to reporters about Mitt Romney that was so over the top that it calls into question the integrity of their entire campaign,” he said. “President Obama ought to apologize for the out-of-control behavior of his staff, which demeans the office he holds. Campaigns are supposed to be hard fought, but statements like those made by Stephanie Cutter belittle the process and the candidate on whose behalf she works.”
Rhoades was working the refs: the media liked to rule whether certain plays were in or out of bounds. He was also trying to undermine the reformist brand that Barack Obama had fashioned from his first campaign. In 2008, Obama had prided himself on his refusal of dollars from lobbyists and political action committees. At one point he had scolded his own staff for suggesting that Hillary Clinton was so close to Indian-American donors that she was a senator representing the Indian state of Punjab. He claimed that politics did not have to be a case of tearing down the other side.
And he promised to unite red and blue America through compromise and common sense. If the focus groups blamed Obama for anything—beyond his inability to fix the economy—it was his failure to unite the country and shift the political dynamic of partisan trench warfare. Now his own campaign was escalating the political attacks by accusing his opponent of not just bending the truth, but breaking the law.
The Romney campaign had turned an attack on Romney’s character into a challenge to Obama’s reputation.
For Stephanie Cutter, the felony remark was a point of pride. Yes, she took some heat from conservatives and pundits. But who cared? Nobody on her side had the guts to tell her—to her face—that she had stepped out of line. She left the call predicting that the Romney campaign would respond, and they did. It was their move now, and she ordered all Obama surrogates off the air.
When Romney went on TV to talk about Cutter’s felony accusation, the deputy campaign manager felt vindicated. She was a soldier on her tour of duty and she had just completed her mission: to sustain a story that most reporters found complicated to cover. The structure of private equity deals and the nature of SEC filings were all hard to follow. But an angry exchange about credibility and values between a presidential candidate and a deputy campaign manager? Now that was easy to enjoy. Cutter’s work was done.
The White House, however, felt less than proud. There was such a thing as an Obama brand and Cutter was threatening to weaken it.
Two of the president’s closest aides believed the felony charge was a huge mistake and were deeply troubled by it. Valerie Jarrett, who served as the keeper of the Obama spirit of 2008, believed it undermined the president’s position. She had heavyweight support from Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who believed the felony accusation was unbecoming, unpresidential, and strategically unwise.
Plouffe and Dan Pfeiffer, the director of communications, were more forgiving and argued that the public nature of Cutter’s job would sometimes lead to such trip-ups. Axelrod himself had fumbled at several points in 2008, including one memorable exchange with reporters when he suggested that Hillary Clinton had some connection to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Cutter had a high batting average, they claimed. Besides, what was the point of fretting now? The damage was done.
The debate about Cutter’s performance did not happen in isolation. It was the latest twist in a long tale of internal doubts and disputes about her role and abilities, and whether she was helping or harming the president’s reelection effort. At the heart of the message machine, Cutter stood out as one of the most visible elements and also one of the most controversial players on the team.
But there were, in effect, two message machines at work at any given time on the Obama campaign. One was located in Chicago, at campaign headquarters, where Cutter controlled the press shop and was its highest-profile surrogate on TV. The other was located inside the White House, where the president’s aides were theoretically keeping their distance from the messy work of campaigning to focus on the people’s business of governing.
The campaign’s real decision-making power about the message resided with Plouffe and Pfeiffer inside the White House. Between the two of them, there was no real room for the kind of job nominally held by Stephanie Cutter. Obama’s aides admired Cutter’s smarts, productivity, and fearlessness. They liked her focus on the regional media that the pundits ignored or disdained. They even feared her anger and her relationship with the First Lady—not least because Cutter reminded anyone and everyone of how Mrs. Obama had often called for her help.
Still, Cutter micromanaged too much, had delusions of power, they thought, and strayed out of her lane. That indiscipline was one of the root causes of the disastrous event on the steps of the Massachusetts legislature, as well as the felony accusations over Bain.
With time, the whole Chicago team might settle into more comfortable, disciplined roles. But did they really have the time or luxury to wait?
The president’s dismay at the Axel-fraud event in Boston triggered a series of interventions. The West Wing team decided they needed to exert more control and discipline. Obama asked Plouffe to spend time each week in Chicago, and he became far more deeply involved in the day-to-day decisions of the campaign. Meanwhile, Cutter continued to clash with Axelrod over minor matters like meeting invitations where she felt she was getting frozen out. And she clashed with Messina over their respective management styles. As the campaign manager, Messina took it upon himself to be direct with Cutter about her manner and tried to correct her behavior. “No one enjoyed that process,” said one senior campaign official.
Cutter was not shy about responding to his suggestions in similarly frank ways. She had no respect for Messina, for what she saw as his spinelessness and indecision. She had been on the losing side of an election in 2004, and the losing side of the internal debate inside the campaign. She was determined not to lose either contest this time around.
Frustrated, some inside Obama’s inner circle hatched a plan to push Cutter out of the picture. Messina gathered a small group together at a White Sox baseball game, where Larry Grisolano, Axelrod and Plouffe spent half the game talking about the Cutter question. They needed Pfeiffer to take over the communications staff after the convention in September. Then Cutter’s role would be confined to TV. The only remaining challenge was: who would tell Cutter of her effective demotion? Messina offered, but that was rejected as an impractical move that would rupture Chicago. Plouffe wanted to keep his distance. There had already been several stories about how few women there were in Obama’s inner circle, and nobody wanted to be involved in a story that could leak about the demotion of the only high-profile woman inside campaign headquarters.
When they consulted the president, he made it clear that he wanted Cutter to stay in some role. “Do what you want,” he said, “but she better not quit.”
Cutter’s guarantor was, in fact, the most high-profile woman of all in Obama’s inner circle: his wife. “Given Michelle Obama, she’s not going anywhere,” said one of the plotters. “The First Family feels very strongly that Stephanie is an asset. When things have gotten bad especially for Michelle, people go to who they trust. When anything goes bad in the East Wing world, she looks at all of her staff and says, “Go get me Cutter.”
The senior communications team could not communicate with itself. One of their greatest successes was to hide their own dysfunction from public view through most of the election cycle. “None of them would talk directly to each other, and they used other people as vessels to try to get information about what was actually going on,” said one senior Obama aide. “It became so hard to decipher. Stephanie didn’t think Messina was actually running the campaign so that is where psychologically she was willing to walk all over him.”
After all the plotting and machinations, Pfeiffer’s arrival in Chicago changed little. Cutter had wanted to be communications director inside the White House, and she wasn’t about to concede that ground. She continued to exert control over the strategic direction of Chicago’s communications.
Besides, the plotters and decision makers did not have the courage of their convictions. “A decision had been made to change Stephanie’s job and bring Pfeiffer in,” said one senior campaign staffer. “But everybody was too scared to tell her. And then Axe saved her.” “Of all the people who spent years complaining behind closed doors, no one will actually ever deliver the news to the person they’re complaining about. That will just never happen. They’ll completely avoid it. They made a decision and just didn’t have the balls to carry it out.”