When White House senior adviser David Plouffe walks into the Oval Office and mentions “stray voltage,” President Obama knows precisely what he means: the white-hot surge of media energy pulsating around a perceived White House screwup on politics or policy. When it happens, Twitter and Facebook light up with strand upon strand of caustic criticism, invective, and vulgar insults. And that’s from Obama’s natural allies.
Examples of policy storms include the flap with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over contraception and Vice President Joe Biden’s blundering support of gay marriage. Political brouhahas include caterwauling from centrist Democrats over campaign attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital and broadsides against Romney’s Swiss bank account.
Plouffe long ago concluded that the traditional White House rollout of a policy, a speech, or a campaign’s line of attack is anachronistic and a waste of time. Obama and team don’t scratch the bellies of newspaper or magazine columnists or build a three-day cycle of selective leaks and preinterviews to frame a larger narrative. Not in the age of dying newspapers, declining network-news ratings, rising social media, and nonstop news cycles. The White House still tries to shape the news cycle with the standard array of briefings and speeches but, uniquely, if a mistake happens or the West Wing appears to be flailing, Obama and Plouffe believe they have learned how to harness the madness (Plouffe won’t admit to intentionally creating it) and guide it to maximum communication advantage.
“You can’t always design these [policy rollouts or crisis reactions] with precision,” Plouffe told National Journal. “It’s always a bit more fluid than it appears. What matters is not the messiness of things in the here and now, but how are things remembered. So you need to ride the tiger as much as possible.”
The debate over requiring religious institutions to provide free contraceptive services, for example, inspired a week of stories about Democratic defections and White House fumbling over an issue of religious liberty. Obama set it in motion with a policy decision that these services would be free. Plouffe and top White House advisers reviewed a raft of public and party polling showing strong majority support, even among Catholics. Plouffe and others thought they were on firm political ground.
But the backlash over allegations that the president was trampling on religious liberties created real heartburn. For days, the White House appeared to be groping for a face-saving solution. Republicans and their allies fouled their own nest, however, with a House hearing on contraception with no female witnesses and a nasty outburst from Rush Limbaugh that fed the Democrats’ “war on women” narrative. Republicans have only recently recovered from that backlash. The final compromise kept contraception free, and, on balance, Plouffe believes he put the “stray voltage” to good use.
Biden’s endorsement of gay marriage created a different problem. The White House saw the Meet the Press transcript the Friday before the Sunday broadcast and tried all weekend to cauterize the wound. By late Sunday, pressure from gay-rights groups and confusion among rank-and-file Democrats were feverish. But instead of shoving Obama out the next day to announce his decision to endorse gay marriage, Plouffe and team waited until Wednesday. Press secretary Jay Carney endured a hellish Monday press briefing, and questions about Obama’s character swirled with tornado-like fury the next day. All the while, White House aides reminded the nation how much the president had already done in support of gay rights (expansion of federal benefits, ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” ceasing defense of the Defense of Marriage Act).
“We knew it was going to be a disaster,” a senior administration official said. “We just decided to make one attempt to put it back in the box. But by Tuesday morning, we had met with the president and called ABC. It was a big [move], and we had to do it right because it was going to matter. We had to do it on our terms and not rush it.”
On White House terms—this is another component of the unified stray-voltage theory. “It means taking some criticism and pain up front,” another top official said. “It means we don’t get scared off. We know sometimes some of the stray energy is going to fly back in our face.”
Plouffe says the inevitable torrent of coverage via Twitter means that the White House cannot afford to drift. But it can gather the thrum of social-media babble and send it in a new direction. “There are, what, six news cycles a day?” Plouffe said. “Six turns for a story in a day? But there aren’t six turns for the American people. You can’t do enough to fill that vacuum. In the modern media world, that’s really hard. And if you get sucked into that, you lose ground. You can’t make decisions based on that. You have to think not six minutes from now but six months from now.”
That's what’s the White House said it has done with the Bain attacks. It set them in motion and watched Democrats openly question the strategy. Media skepticism intensified. But Obama hit the issue hard at the G-20 meeting in Chicago—by design. He signaled that he wouldn’t relent. “That was a situation where we didn’t feel like we were riding the wave,” a senior administration official said. “It was just fasten your seat belt and take it.”
But now, the campaign and White House feel vindicated by swing-state polls showing Romney’s negatives rising as voters become more aware of his history at Bain. Moreover, Obama and his aides believe that the Democratic skepticism amplified the debate about Romney’s role at the private-equity company, giving the story oxygen that the ad buys alone couldn’t have supplied. The Obama campaign believes that much the same will happen with its attacks on Romney’s Swiss bank account.
Controversy drives attention, eyeballs, social-media fascination, and, possibly, poll numbers. So far, Team Obama believes that it knows all there is to know about stray voltage—and is betting it can’t get burned.
This article appears in the July 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.