Politics in America: The Obamaland Diaries

Like Christmas sales and hangovers, electoral mania seems to arrive a little earlier and little less welcome with each passing year. (“Christie says he’s open to 2016 presidential bid,” the Associated Press reported in July.) The November showdown between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been A1 news since the latter clinched the Republican nomination in May. For the 12 months before that, it was wall-to-wall primary coverage, not one whit of which now seems relevant. (Remember when Herman Cain won the Iowa straw poll?*) Unless you spent the summer thru-hiking the Long Trail, by now you’ve glimpsed what will be the costliest presidential contest in American history. If you happen to live in a battleground state—Ohio, Colorado, Florida—perhaps you’ve taken one politico’s advice and given your television to a neighbor.

The parties and their proxies, including Super-pacs, intend to spend $2 billion on this year’s election. Just how many votes can be bought with that kind of money remains to be seen. Ben LaBolt ’03, the Obama campaign’s national press secretary, is hoping it’s enough to keep him employed after November 6. Also, he would like to point out, the future of the greatest country in the world depends on it.

***

LaBolt ducked out of Obama for America’s glass-and-granite headquarters in downtown Chicago to grab a quick lunch the other day. He was wearing his characteristic five o’clock shadow and a well-cut pair of jeans. He has eyebrows like “em” dashes, perfectly flat and humorless—and a slight growl. At 31, he is world-weary in a way usually reserved for roadies and parole officers, people who have seen it all and have lost their capacity for surprise. “I don’t think anybody’s ever accused me of being an idealist,” he said, tucking into a bowl of potato leek soup.

His CV reads like the portrait of a political operative: In 2003, weeks out of college, he went to “knock doors” for Howard Dean’s nascent presidential campaign; when Dean flamed out, he jumped to the Democratic National Committee. He did press for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) on the Hill, assisted Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) successful Senate campaign in 2006, and a year later went to work for the junior senator from Illinois. The weekend that LaBolt arrived, his new boss—a largely unknown legislator with a funny name and dark skin—announced his presidential ambitions. LaBolt would go on to be one of Obama’s 2008 wunderkinder, and after Obama’s inauguration, he found a home in the West Wing as an assistant press secretary. When Rahm Emanuel left the administration in 2011 to run for mayor of Chicago, he took LaBolt with him as his communications director. As soon as Emanuel was sworn in, Obama took LaBolt back and made him national spokesman for Obama for America.

All of which is to say, this is not his first rodeo. And the itinerant life of a political cowboy suits him just fine. “I used to relitigate my future at the end of every year and really focus on developing a 10-year plan,” he mused. “I don’t do that anymore.”

His Cobb salad, no bleu cheese, arrived. Lunch outside the office is a rarity these days. He rises between five and six a.m. “in case news has popped overnight,” and he fields calls from morning-show producers who need a quick sound bite. The e-mails begin soon after, with reporters from the big dailies and wire services checking in to see what narrative the campaign is pushing (today it’s Romney’s tax returns) and “asking us to show some leg” on issues like Medicare or off-shore drilling. LaBolt might do a national cable appearance with Fox to spar with the anchor over Vice President Biden’s gaffe du jour or knock down Romney’s latest attack ad. “Cable contributes to the daily national-news cycle to drive a story,” he admitted, “but you really don’t reach voters doing that. You really have to get into the local market.” Swing voters care less about Romney’s car elevator than they do about, say, emergency drought relief. “That’s just not relevant to people who aren’t junkies.”

Instead, LaBolt does dozens of weekly radio and TV interviews in targeted markets, talking about the president’s position on education reform (Akron), the farm bill (Ames), the renewable-energy tax credit (Fort Collins), and defense spending (Norfolk). “Our ultimate focus is what’s on TV in Cleveland and Orlando and Denver, rather than on dominating the conversation in every media outlet.” A studio in the corner of the Chicago office allows him a direct feed into the cars and living rooms of millions of Americans. Does he ever get nervous that he’ll stray from his talking points and say the wrong thing? “Every spokesperson worries about that. But you also know that things move quickly. If it was insignificant, in 48 hours it’ll be gone.” He added,
“The truth is, we don’t get very far up or down about anything. We know there’s always going to be another turn of the wheel.”

By late afternoon, the campaign’s senior staff has planned the next day’s line of attack, briefed reporters, and, if need be, begun to “get out in front” of any negative stories coming their way, while a “rapid response team” continues to parse Romney’s every statement from the campaign trail.

This routine plays out six and a half days a week, with a slight slowdown after the Sunday news shows are over. On a good night, he’s out of the office by 9 p.m. and back online for a few hours after dinner. His iPhone is always within reach.

LaBolt’s office has a killer view of Millennium Park, with its free lunchtime concerts and young folks lounging on the grass after work. He probably hasn’t noticed. The first thing staffers see when they arrive each morning is a sign in the entryway reminding them how many days remain—today, 84—until the election. The place feels like a San Francisco start-up on the verge of an IPO, where chaos is the organizing principle and a half-empty bottle of Jameson is a perfectly acceptable paperweight. Instead of walls, state flags delineate boundaries between desks, organized by region. The “First Lady’s Ladies” manage Michelle-related campaign initiatives, while the “Voter Protection” team stays abreast of new voter I.D. laws. An office manager dispenses paperclips strictly on a need-to-collate basis. “These are volunteer dollars,” one press assistant explained. “There is no free shit.” A phalanx of programmers keeps the campaign’s sprawling Web empire running, and a corral of designers churns out reams of thematic posters. “We are hungry and foolish,” reads one, “fired up and ready to go.”

If that sounds a little 2008, a little “hopey-changey,” well, it is. In truth, LaBolt shares little of the younger staffers’ caffeinated ebullience.

“The biggest mistake you can make is trying to repeat the last campaign that you’ve run,” he said. “Obviously the political climate is different.”

Since the court rulings on Citizens United and SpeechNow.org, Democrats have been hammered in the SuperPAC fund-raising game by Republican heavyweights like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. (As of early September, according to Center for Responsive Politics, conservative groups had spent more than $226 million to unseat Obama and wrest back control of Congress, to liberals’ $63 million.)  Meanwhile, on the issues, this election is less “Si se puede” (yes, it is possible) than it is “It could be worse.”  Still, LaBolt added, “It’s sort of a myth that ’08 was all unicorns and rainbows.”

This go-round, there will be no such myth.

* He didn’t. Michelle Bachman did.

Kevin Charles Redmon ’09 writes from Washington, D.C.

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