CBS ‘60 Minutes’ Fawning Look At ‘Obama’s Inner Circle’

Steve Kroft, CBS On Sunday’s CBS ‘60 Minutes,’ anchor Steve Kroft abandoned hard-hitting journalism and instead offered a glowing profile of the Obama campaign team: "Like Obama, they were talented, laid back, and idealistic, with limited exposure on the national stage. But with the candidate's help, the team orchestrated one of the most improbable and effective campaigns in American political history." Kroft interviewed Obama advisors David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, and Anita Dunn about the campaign and later observed: "The only person missing from the brain trust was the candidate himself."

Kroft went on to describe their incredible accomplishment: "They took a little known senator with a foreign sounding name and almost no national experience and got him elected the 44th President of the United States. They did it by recruiting and investing millions of volunteers in the outcome, by raising more money than any campaign in history, and by largely ignoring the fact that their candidate happened to be a black man."

On the issue of race, Kroft later asked: "There were just so many people -- reporters, pundits, everybody -- who said that you're not going to be able to elect a black man President of the United States. It's just not going to happen right now. Obviously that had to be part of your equation in planning this campaign." When Plouffe replied: "No. Honestly, you had to take a leap of faith in the beginning that the people would get by race, and I think the number of meetings we had about race was zero." An incredulous Kroft responded: "What?"

Continuing the racial discussion, Kroft turned to Jeremiah Wright: "You certainly must have had some meetings on it during the Jeremiah Wright affair?" Axelrod responded: "Well, the Jeremiah Wright affair was probably a pivotal moment in this whole campaign. You know, pandemonium erupted in the political community, and there was this sense that we were at a -- in crisis." Kroft observed: "The videotaped rantings of Obama's former pastor brought the issue that the campaign had long sought to avoid center stage. And it took them all by surprise."

On Wright, Axelrod admitted: "We'd all acknowledged that we should have been aware of some of, you know, these tapes were available. We didn't review all of the tapes of Jeremiah Wright as we should have. And as a result we were kind of caught flat footed on some of these tapes." However, Axelrod quickly turned to Obama’s March speech on the issue: "He said, ‘You know what? I'm going to make a speech about race and talk about Jeremiah Wright and the perspective of the -- of the larger issue.’ And he said, ‘either people will accept it or I won't be President of the United States, but at least I'll have said what I think needs to be said.’ Plouffe added: "You know, it was a moment of real leadership. At that moment, I think when he gave that race speech in Philadelphia, people saw a president."

Kroft went on to outline the success of the Obama campaign: "Obama's appeal, his message of change, and a rapidly failing economy, eventually helped mute concerns about race, and the enormity of Obama's grassroots field operation began to overwhelm the opposition...It raised more than $600 million...much of it from small contributors over the Internet; and it recruited an army of volunteers from all walks of life, young and old...Democrats, independents, and Republicans. And the campaign ventured beyond traditional Democratic strongholds into Republican territory." On that note, Axelrod bragged: "I mean, our field operations and our targeting and all of that stuff was done at a -- with a level of sophistication that exceeded anything that had been done before."

At the end of the interview, Axelrod lamented:

We believed in him and we believed in the cause, and we believed in each other. And by the end of this thing, over two years, you forge relationships, and we're like a family. I mean, the hardest thing about this is that it's ended now. I've said it's like the end of the movie 'M.A.S.H.' you know, the war's over, we're all going home. And we want to go home, but on the other hand, it's sort of a bit of melancholy because we've come to love each other and believe in each other, and we know that this will never be the same, that we went through this experience and it was a singular experience and it'll never be the same.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:04PM SEGMENT:

STEVE KROFT: When Barack Obama began thinking about running for president two years ago, he turned to a small inner circle of political advisers from his 2004 Senate campaign. Like Obama, they were talented, laid back, and idealistic, with limited exposure on the national stage. But with the candidate's help, the team orchestrated one of the most improbable and effective campaigns in American political history. They took a little known senator with a foreign sounding name and almost no national experience and got him elected the 44th President of the United States. They did it by recruiting and investing millions of volunteers in the outcome, by raising more money than any campaign in history, and by largely ignoring the fact that their candidate happened to be a black man. When President-elect Obama gave his victory speech Tuesday night in Chicago's Grant Park he was quick to give credit.

BARACK OBAMA: To the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics, you made this happen and I am-

KROFT: Who was Obama talking about, and how did they do it? Ninety minutes after the speech ended we were sitting down with them at a Chicago hotel suite. It was 1:00 in the morning and the reality of it all was just beginning to sink in. We just left Grant Park. What are you feeling?

DAVID AXELROD: A little numb, a little tired, a little overwhelmed.

KROFT: The group included David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist and political alter-ego; and David Plouffe, the camera shy campaign manager and field general who made it all happen.

DAVID PLOUFFE: It's been a 22-month road and a lot of twists and turns but, you know, I think he filled the station.

KROFT: There was senior aide Robert Gibbs, who was always at Obama's side, his former and future press secretary.

ROBERT GIBBS: It was fun to watch all the people come out who've been part of the campaign and-

AXELROD: Robert's our spokesman.

KROFT: When did you lose your voice?

GIBBS: Within the last few hours.

ANITA DUNN: A prerequisite for your job, Robert.

KROFT: And finally, Anita Dunn, a relative newcomer, who handled communications, research, and policy. The only person missing from the brain trust was the candidate himself. How big a role did he play in this campaign?

PLOUFFE: Well, no one had a bigger role. The great thing about our campaign was, we didn't have a lot of discussion about what our message was or what he wanted to do. From the beginning he knew exactly what he wanted to say. And it's one of the reasons we were successful. A lot of campaigns will spend hours every day wondering about how to change their message. And he was pretty clear about what he wanted to say, where he wanted to take the country. And either people would accept it or they wouldn't.

KROFT: When it began 22 months ago on a frigid day in Springfield, Illinois, almost, it seemed, on an impulse, there was no money and no real organization, only a vast untapped reservoir of disaffected voters and potential volunteers.

OBAMA: This campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together.

AXELROD: When we started the campaign, we met around a table like this and there were just a handful of us in the -- you know, we started with nothing. And Barack said to us, 'I want this to be a grassroots campaign. I want to re-invigorate our democracy. I want to bring more people back into our government. First of all, I think that's the only way we can win, and secondly, I think we need to rekindle some idealism that together we can get things done in this country.'

KROFT: Did any of you seriously think that he had a shot?

PLOUFFE: We thought he had a shot. I actually think we knew what big underdogs we were. And he got into this very -- in a very unusual way. Most people plan this for years. They spend a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire planning for it. We got into this very unconventionally.

AXELROD: We planned for days.

PLOUFFE: For days.

AXELROD: Yeah.

PLOUFFE: And in many respects that made it challenging, but I think we were better for it because we were more agile. We were not afraid to take risks. And we didn't have the stifling pressure of expectations.

AXELROD: And my fundamental concern for him wasn't whether he had the capacity, because I think he's the smartest guy that I've ever worked with or known, but it was whether he had that pathological drive to be president. You know, so often what defines presidential candidates is this need to be president to define themselves. He didn't have that. And, you know, we told him, 'You're going to have to find some way to motivate yourself,' and he did, which was what he could do as president.

KROFT: There were just so many people -- reporters, pundits, everybody -- who said that you're not going to be able to elect a black man President of the United States. It's just not going to happen right now. Obviously that had to be part of your equation in planning this campaign.

PLOUFFE: No. Honestly, you had to take a leap of faith in the beginning that the people would get by race, and I think the number of meetings we had about race was zero.

KROFT: What?

PLOUFFE: Zero. We had to believe in the beginning that he would be a strong enough candidate, that people of every background and race would be for him.

AXELROD: The only time we got involved in a discussion of race was when people asked us about it. It was a fascination of the news media. It was a fascination of the political community.

KROFT: You certainly must have had some meetings on it during the Jeremiah Wright affair.

AXELROD: Well, the Jeremiah Wright affair was probably a pivotal moment in this whole campaign. You know, pandemonium erupted in the political community, and there was this sense that we were at a -- in crisis.

JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Not God bless America, God damn America-

KROFT: The videotaped rantings of Obama's former pastor brought the issue that the campaign had long sought to avoid center stage. And it took them all by surprise.

AXELROD: We'd all acknowledged that we should have been aware of some of, you know, these tapes were available. We didn't review all of the tapes of Jeremiah Wright as we should have. And as a result we were kind of caught flat footed on some of these tapes. But the -- you know, we should have recognized that once that happened that race is such a fascination of the political community and the news media that it would take off as it did, and it did.

DUNN: That was a terrible weekend. You know, the excerpts were endlessly looped on television.

AXELROD: Yeah, and the only one who was calm-

DUNN: Was-

AXELROD: -was Obama.

DUNN: Yeah.

KROFT: The candidate called his aides and told them he wanted them to clear some time on his schedule.

AXELROD: He said, 'You know what? I'm going to make a speech about race and talk about Jeremiah Wright and the perspective of the -- of the larger issue.' And he said, 'either people will accept it or I won't be President of the United States, but at least I'll have said what I think needs to be said.'

GIBBS: There wasn't a discussion.

DUNN: No. If there had been a discussion-

GIBBS: Right.

DUNN: -we've often joked probably most of the people in the campaign would have advised against it.

OBAMA: The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society, it's that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made, as if this country, a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino, Asian, rich, poor, young and old, is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

PLOUFFE: You know, it was a moment of real leadership. At that moment, I think when he gave that race speech in Philadelphia, people saw a president.

KROFT: Obama's appeal, his message of change, and a rapidly failing economy, eventually helped mute concerns about race, and the enormity of Obama's grassroots field operation began to overwhelm the opposition.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, great, thanks for all your support.

KROFT: It raised more than $600 million-

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much for your support.

KROFT: -much of it from small contributors over the Internet; and it recruited an army of volunteers from all walks of life, young and old-

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN B: I work for Obama.

KROFT: -Democrats, independents, and Republicans. And the campaign ventured beyond traditional Democratic strongholds into Republican territory.

GIBBS: We competed everywhere. There wasn't a state we didn't go to, regardless of its size, that we didn't think we could compete in, caucus states and primary states. And I think, you look at that map tonight and there are states that are blue because of the effort that we put in a long, long time ago and built a grassroots effort up starting on day one. And we were ridiculed at times for people coming out and having crowds that were excited to see our candidate. I'm pretty sure they're not ridiculing us tonight.

DUNN: We went around in June and July and people said, 'Well, what's your general election strategy?' And we laid it out, said, here are the 18 states we think are going to be battlegrounds, and Indiana and North Carolina were on there, and absolutely no one took it seriously, especially-

AXELROD: Especially the McCain campaign.

DUNN: Particularly the McCain campaign.

AXELROD: Mm-hmm.

DUNN: David's mantra for the general election was that we were going to enlarge the playing field and that we weren't going to run the same campaigns that had been run in the past where it all came down to just one state, you know, at 3 or 4 in the morning.

KROFT: How did you win in states like North Carolina and Indiana?

PLOUFFE: Well, first of all, we believed we could. I mean, I think part of it is not being afraid to venture out and try and win in what has been considered hostile territory. But we also had these volunteers, and without them, the idea of winning North Carolina and Indiana would be a bridge too far. And our campaign was the art of the possible because of these millions of people out there. You know, if we decided we wanted to go register 500,000 people in a state, we could because of them.

KROFT: And that's exactly what they did in North Carolina, where race did matter when it came to registering huge numbers of minority voters. Plouffe called it growing the electorate, and it changed the political map. In Indiana, the number of Obama field offices, staffed mostly by volunteers, outnumbered the McCain campaign 44 to none. They used Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter to engage young voters, and they canvassed neighborhoods street by street, identifying supporters and entering the information into a central database. It helped them determine who had voted early and who might need a ride to the polls on Election Day.

AXELROD: I mean, our field operations and our targeting and all of that stuff was done at a -- with a level of sophistication that exceeded anything that had been done before. And it was a marvel to watch the bells and whistles that people are kind of shaking their heads at in wonderment were a direct result of David Plouffe.

PLOUFFE: We've all worked in campaigns a lot, and volunteerism in politics is a dying thing. And to see this many people getting involved, giving $25, manning phone banks, becoming neighborhood team captains, you know, hasn't been seen in a very long time. And I hope that, that is the legacy of this campaign.

KROFT: You ran an incredibly effective and disciplined campaign, certainly one of the most effective presidential campaigns that's ever been run. There was no in-fighting, no real leaks, almost no turnover. How did you manage that? Even the Republicans were in awe.

PLOUFFE: Well, it starts with the candidate.

DUNN: Mm-hmm.

PLOUFFE: His motto is 'no drama.' That doesn't mean that we don't express opinions strongly, but that we're all a unit, and once we make a decision we stick with it, we don't re-visit it. He stays very calm, doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low, treats people well. So when the leader is setting that example, everyone follows.

AXELROD: We believed in him and we believed in the cause, and we believed in each other. And by the end of this thing, over two years, you forge relationships, and we're like a family. I mean, the hardest thing about this is that it's ended now. I've said it's like the end of the movie 'M.A.S.H.' you know, the war's over, we're all going home. And we want to go home, but on the other hand, it's sort of a bit of melancholy because we've come to love each other and believe in each other, and we know that this will never be the same, that we went through this experience and it was a singular experience and it'll never be the same.

KROFT: It may not be the same, and not all of them are going home. After our interview David Axelrod was named as senior adviser to President-elect Obama and will be joining him in the White House, along with press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC