Jim Messina: The most powerful person in Washington you've never heard of

If Barack Obama wins again, he will owe much to the energy and hi-tech savvy of his campaign manager

Rupert Cornwell
Saturday 03 November 2012 01:00 GMT
Jim Messina: If Barack Obama wins again, he will owe much to the energy and hi-tech savvy of his campaign manager
Jim Messina: If Barack Obama wins again, he will owe much to the energy and hi-tech savvy of his campaign manager (AP)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Jim Messina was in Hawaii, with a handful of other top Obama aides at the end of 2010, a few weeks after the Democrats had been put to the sword in the mid-terms. Out in the surf one day, his boss made an offer he couldn't refuse. "I've got a favour I want to ask," the President said. "I'd like you to run the re-elect."

Messina accepted, and swapped a deputy chief of staff's cramped White House office at the epicentre of Washington power for the sprawling campaign headquarters 700 miles away in Chicago, in a skyscraper overlooking Grant Park where Obama spoke on that unforgettable victory night in November 2008.

The pace in Washington was frantic; in these waning, desperate days of election 2012, it is surely if anything more frantic still in Chicago, made worse by a grim awareness that maybe nothing you do can make any difference at this stage, that America's voters have already made up their collective mind. Just four days from now – barring, of course, a repeat of Florida 2000 – their verdict will be known. And in the President's team, apart from Obama himself, no one will have been more responsible for the outcome than Messina.

For better or worse, top campaign strategists have become part of US election lore. They tend to resemble each other, at least in popular image. They must be obsessive and ruthless, possessed of a manic single-mindedness and a quasi-magical understanding of what it takes to win. The elder Bush had Lee Atwater; Bill Clinton had James Carville, and George W had Karl Rove. Now Jim Messina has a chance to join their number.

You might not think so at first glance. Tall and lanky, with floppy blond hair, boyish face and slightly lopsided grin, he reminds one vaguely of the golfer Ernie Els. In fact, Messina's abiding sporting passion is the Grizzlies football team from his alma mater, the University of Montana. The early Obama White House, it was said, was a coterie of jocks. If so, then Messina indubitably was a founder member.

In fact, a more pertinent similarity may be with his immediate boss back in those days, Obama's first chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago. Messina is quieter and marginally less foul-tongued; nor, as far as is known has he sent a hostile pollster a dead fish, Mafia-style, an incident that is part of the Emanuel legend. But they have a similar drive and relentless focus, two arch-pragmatists for whom the ends justify the means.

Under Emanuel, an early-morning staff meeting used to assign tasks for the day ahead, identifying people who had to be called and problems that needed to be solved. A colleague remembered how often "Jim would disappear from Rahm's office, pop through the door a few minutes later and say, 'Got it!' or 'Got him!'".

In the White House, he became known as "Obama's fixer". In wider political Washington he was called "mini-Rahm", rarely as a term of endearment. Neither took no for an answer; neither was in the habit of putting off until tomorrow what could be done today. As Messina once described his modus operandi, "if the White House deputy chief of staff calls, you take his f****** phone call". Not for nothing did Dan Pfeiffer, the current White House communications director, describe Messina as "the most powerful person in Washington you've never heard of".

Like Rove and Atwater, he started in politics early – Messina managed the successful 1993 re-election campaign of Dan Kemmis, the then mayor of Missoula, Montana, while still an undergraduate. But the seeds of a no-nonsense approach to life were probably planted as a young child, when his father abandoned the family, and even paying the rent became a monthly uphill struggle for his mother.

The big break came in 1995, when Messina went to work for Max Baucus, the most powerful Democrat in Montana and now its longest-serving US Senator. In 2002, while running Baucus's re-election campaign in a Republican-leaning state in a tough year for Democrats, Messina was associated with an advert widely deemed to be homophobic, which helped to drive Baucus's opponent from the race.

"Jim is tough," Baucus laconically noted later. Yet it would be this same Messina, by now White House deputy chief of staff, who helped to push Congress to its 2010 vote that opened the way for gays in the military, a move that has almost certainly helped Obama politically. When the vote passed, tears were said to be in Messina's eyes. Whether from relief at bringing another one in for the boss, or from a sense of atonement, is unrecorded.

On Capitol Hill, with Baucus as his mentor and patron, Messina emerged as an especially savvy operator in a place full of them, credited during his stint as the senator's chief of staff with stymieing George W Bush's bid in 2005 to part-privatise social security. Those skills attracted attention from a certain aspiring presidential candidate, and in summer 2008, with Hillary Clinton finally dispatched, Messina signed up with Obama, fitting easily into the tight-knit campaign team.

And campaigning, not governing, is his real love. "I miss how bad a campaign office smells at midnight," he says, confessing how he once ate 27 consecutive meals at McDonald's. He might have been one of Obama's most trusted lieutenants in Washington, but that December 2010 summons on Waikiki Beach made perfect sense.

Messina threw himself into the job with gusto, reading more than 100 accounts of presidential campaigns past. But the real crash course was the future and its technologies. He now had a new mentor, Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, whom he had met in the 2008 campaign, and instantly hit it off with. In early 2011, as the Chicago HQ was being readied for business, Messina went on an extraordinary mission to learn the arts of modern management.

From the start, Messina realised that 2012 would be far tougher than 2008: not an idealistic national movement, but a state-by-state slog, in an America wearied and disenchanted, not least with Obama himself. "You have to understand, this will be nothing like the last campaign," he told Obama that day in Hawaii, according to a fascinating account in Bloomberg Businessweek. "Everything is different now."

Just how different became clear during that month-long corporate crash course, when Schmidt helped to arrange sessions with top people from Apple (including the late Steve Jobs), Facebook, Microsoft and DreamWorks among others. Running a presidential campaign (cost: $1bn upwards) was like running a huge corporation, Messina reasoned. He wanted to know how it was done, especially when social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in relative infancy in 2008, were now so important.

The lessons he drew have shaped Obama's 2012 re-election drive, even to the layout of its Chicago head office, a sprawling open-plan layout befitting a gigantic Silicon Valley start-up, the polar opposite of the squirrel's nest in the West Wing of the White House. The techniques are Silicon Valley, too, born of a belief that politics is not just gut instinct and sensitivity to the mood of the moment, but a matter of analysis and scientific measurement.

As never before, the campaign relies on data mining, enabling it to zero in on individual voters, reach them by every electronic means, and thus guide a minutely targeted ground operation. Even email, so central four years ago, is becoming obsolete. In 2008, Obama had 116,000 Twitter followers. Now he has 16 million.

But this has a downside. If the 2012 campaign has come across as soulless and negative, more concerned with attacking Mitt Romney than providing vision and uplift, blame that perhaps on those calculating men in Chicago – and thus on Jim Messina. If his boss wins, however narrowly, none of this will matter. An Obama defeat, however, would wreck his chances of joining the likes of Rove, Atwater and Carville in the pantheon of strategists who have become legends.

But Messina, one suspects, relishes the challenge. In addition to his devotion to fast cars (he owns a Porsche) and the Montana Grizzlies, he is an avid reader, especially of books on leadership. "At some level," he once told The Washington Post, "if you control the process, you control the outcome."

A Life in Brief

Born: Jim Messina, Denver, Colorado, 1969.

Family: His father left the family when Messina was a young child.

Education: Boise High School, Idaho; political science at the University of Montana.

Career: Managed his first campaign in 1993 for a mayor in Montana. Big break came in 1995, when Messina went to work for Max Baucus, the US senator. Took other chief of staff roles before joining Obama's 2008 campaign. After the election, Messina was made deputy White House chief of staff; Obama's campaign manager for the 2012 re-election.

He says: "We have the math. They have the myth."

They say: "Jim understood this campaign is a different challenge. He knows you can't just jump back on the horse and ride it down the same trail." David Plouffe, Obama campaign manager.

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