Yes We Can (Can't We?)

By Romano, Andrew | Newsweek, January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Yes We Can (Can't We?)


Romano, Andrew, Newsweek


Byline: Andrew Romano

Team Obama has quietly built a juggernaut reelection machine in Chicago. Andrew Romano goes inside.

The Obama campaign is not kidding around. I recently visited its headquarters in Chicago, and I can personally vouch for how much it's not kidding around. Yes, there was a blue Ping-Pong table in the middle of the office--custom-made, evidently, because the Obama 2012 logo was emblazoned on it. (Twice.) There were printouts of people's nicknames--Sandals! Shermanator!--where corporate nameplates usually go. There was a mesh trucker hat from South Dakota, which was blaze orange and said "Big Cock Country" on the crown. There was a cardboard speech bubble ("nom nom data nom") affixed to an Uglydoll. There was miniature air-hockey table. A narwhal mural. A stuffed Rastafarian banana.

But do not be deceived. There was also a chaperone following me everywhere I went and digitally recording everything anyone said to me. Ben LaBolt, Obama's press secretary, and Stephanie Cutter, his deputy campaign manager, closed their doors as I walked by. An underling clammed up when I asked what she and her colleagues do on the weekends. At one point my minder agreed to let me out of her sight for a few milliseconds, but then I got too close to a big whiteboard covered in hieroglyphic flow charts and she instantaneously materialized at my side, having somehow teleported the 50 yards from where I'd last seen her. "Sorry," she said, not sounding sorry at all. "You can't look at that." The next day it was covered by a tarp.

In short, the place is intense; Obama's minions are very serious about lots of things, including the business of reminding themselves not to be so serious. But then I would be intense, too, if I were the Obama campaign. With 10 months to go before Election Day, the president's job-approval rating is loitering around 46 percent, which is a problem, because the incumbent party has lost the last five times its president started Election Year below 49 percent. Likewise, no president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 has been reelected when the unemployment rate is as high or higher than it is now (8.6 percent), and no president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 has won a second term when GDP growth is as slow or slower than the current pace (2 percent). While none of these afflictions is fatal in and of itself, Obama has to overcome all three of them at once. No other modern president has even attempted this daring feat, let alone survived it.

So it makes sense for Chicago to be uptight. The president's legendarily leakproof operation has splintered, with top advisers talking out of turn for the first time since he was elected (Exhibit A: Ron Suskind's Confidence Men). The halo that hovered over Obama's head back when he was a hopey-changey candidate--the halo that lured a vast army of political neophytes to the polls--has given way, of necessity, to a politician's less celestial aura. And then there's the expectations game to contend with. In 2008, Obama was the underdog. His team didn't have time for anxiety; there was always another fight to focus on, another impossible victory to engineer. But this year, there is only one: Nov. 6. And because the presidency is theirs to lose, Obama's staffers are, understandably, worried about losing it. They know the White House has had trouble selling what they see as Obama's impressive record--and now the burden falls on them. "There are going to be some white-knuckle moments," one 2008 veteran told me. "It's going to be really hard."

The good news for Obama is that it may be harder for Republicans. While the GOP candidates have spent the last year parading and pirouetting on Fox News, the president's team has been quietly, methodically channeling their worry back into the campaign--and creating something, I discovered in Chicago, that will be even bigger, even smarter, and even more surprising than their revolutionary 2008 operation.

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