Why it's not a bad a thing that Axelrod's coming home and Plouffe is back in the game

November 16, 2010

It may seem like an even exchange: weary David Axelrod comes home to Chicago, sees the fam, and starts gearing for 2012, while David Plouffe, the Obama campaign’s brainy strategist, finally takes a public White House post.

But part of makes these two work so well is that they complement rather than mirror each other. And right now Axelrod needs a break while Plouffe comes in relatively rested. Frankly, this may be the best move the White House has made in a while.

Senior adviser to the president was never the job Axelrod wanted – he initially said he wouldn’t take it, then said he wouldn’t stay more than a year and, now, two years on and a devastating midterm election later, we all wish he’d listened to his gut. Gaffe-prone of late, Axelrod needs to come home to Chicago to rest and re-charge.

It’s important to remember that, long before he became the founder of one of he most successful political consulting firms ever, he was a journalist. And the singular quality that good reporters share – and have no doubt that Axelrod was a very good reporter – is the ability to listen. Second to that is the ability to distill. And those two talents have brought much success to Axelrod the consultant but, I suspect, have not proven as useful in government.

Maybe there’s too much information to take in Washington-way, or too much noise. Or maybe it’s the fact that David was never one of those quiet man-behind-the-curtain consultants and he got too much distracting attention in his government role.

So it’ll be good to see him tie-less and rumpled – his mother once said he looked like “an unmade bed” -- dashing around town, listening and distilling without the immediate tension and anxieties that Washington can provoke.

And maybe, from afar, he can still help save Obama’s presidency.

Contrary to Axelrod, Plouffe – who was once a partner in Axelrod’s former consulting firm -- has never been anything but a political animal obsessed with winning. The title of his campaign book? The Audacity to Win – not a memoir so much as a blueprint. This is the guy that said, “Super Tuesday? Who cares? Let me show you how you can bypass Florida too …” And he did it all without showing up on TV all that much, so much so that Obama referred to him as the “unsung hero” – many thought more unseen -- of the campaign on election night.

After the 2008 electoral Dem sweep, Plouffe did not take a government job. He stayed close by, in Washinton, and wrote his book. He also went back to school (he had dropped out of college in 1989 and just finished up his B.A. at the University of Delaware this past May). And he consulted, of course, even for Obama, but at a respectable distance.

It’s important to note though that rather than listen and distill, Plouffe lives and breathes analysis and strategy. They sound similar – and they certainly overlap in some ways – but they’re not: one is more passive, the other inherently active. Plouffe is about how to put the pieces in play; he's all about winning the game, not just getting in it.

Not how to explain what happened but how to make them explain what happened.

And with that playbook, maybe having him up close to Obama, forcing him to make the moves, he might still save this presidency, too.