David Plouffe is not the White House electrician, but he’s got the place wired like no other senior adviser in President Obama’s realm. Plouffe has been at Obama’s side since the first faint imaginings of his political ascendancy were hatched in 2003.
Plouffe began his association then with both David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist, and the future president himself. Together, the three cast their eyes on the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois and made the most of Obama’s now nearly mythic keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Plouffe then built, brick-by-brick, Obama’s national grassroots campaign that upended front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton and a field of other Democrats who owned a higher profile than his—including 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards; Joe Biden from Plouffe’s home state of Delaware; and then-Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, former DNC general chairman. Plouffe zeroed in on the Iowa caucuses, and Obama’s victory there provided a burst of momentum Clinton could not reverse.
A legendary penny-pincher, Plouffe sought to eradicate every trace of waste in Obama’s 2008 campaign. After he forbade use of desk dividers in the Chicago headquarters, desks were crammed together in long lines. Campaign staff and volunteers sat elbow-to-elbow with nary an inch available for picture frames or knickknacks. The story, possibly apocryphal, goes that an aide to Plouffe joked that he could cut paper costs by printing “One Paper Towel Only, David Plouffe” on every towel in the men’s and women’s restrooms. Plouffe was genuinely intrigued—until he was told the idea was meant in jest.
When Obama clinched the nomination, he took pains to thank Plouffe, and in his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago, only blocks from the headquarters where Plouffe reigned so parsimoniously, Obama credited him as the “unsung hero” who built “the best political campaign … in the history of the United States of America.”
Plouffe watched the first two years of the Obama presidency from the safe distance of consultancy, while speechifying for cash. He returned to the White House in 2011 after Axelrod left for Chicago to lay the foundation for Obama’s reelection campaign. In the West Wing, Plouffe manages policy development and communications, popularizing the term “stray voltage” to explain how even in moments of apparent chaos where Obama looks off-balance, the White House can extract some political gains. Cleaning up the flubs over new contraception coverage and Biden’s unexpected advocacy of gay marriage are now Plouffian case studies of the stray-voltage theory.
“Plouffe was [the] embodiment of the discipline, strategic thinking, and focus that were at the heart of the ’08 campaign,” said White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. “He has brought all of those elements to the White House.”
That means Plouffe keeps track of both the voltage and, possibly, excessive paper-towel usage.