President Barack Obama’s top advisers are quietly laying the groundwork for the 2012 reelection campaign, which is likely to be run out of Chicago and managed by White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, according to Democrats familiar with the discussions.
The planning for now consists entirely of private conversations, with Obama aides at all levels indulging occasionally in closed-door 2012 discussions while focusing ferociously on the midterm elections and health-care reform, the Democratic sources said.
“The gathering storm is the 2010 elections,” one top official said.
But the sources said Obama has given every sign of planning to run again, and wants the next campaign to resemble the highly successful 2008 effort.
"The conversations are beginning, but decisions haven't been made," a top official said. "If you look at David Plouffe's stepped-up level of activity with the political organization [as an outside adviser on the 2010 races], that is obviously the beginning of the process."
David Axelrod, White House senior adviser, may leave the West Wing to rejoin his family in Chicago and reprise his role as Obama’s muse, overseeing the campaign’s tone, themes, messages and advertising, the sources said.
Plouffe, the Obama for America campaign manager and described by one friend as "the father of all this," will be a central player in the reelect, perhaps as an outside adviser.
Anita Dunn, former White House communications director, will be intimately involved, too. Brad Woodhouse, the Democratic National Committee’s communications director, has rising stock and is a logical choice to be communications director for the reelection campaign, the sources said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett are likely to remain at the president’s side in Washington, while exercising major influence over the campaign. Pfeiffer, communications director of the last campaign and always a trusted insider, has a higher public profile every day.
Other central figures are likely to be DNC Executive Director Jennifer O'Malley Dillon; her husband, Patrick Dillon, who is deputy White House political director and is likely to bring his extensive gubernatorial contacts to Chicago; Mitch Stewart, executive director of the DNC's Organizing for America; Jon Carson, national field director of Obama for America; and White House political director Patrick Gaspard.
The DNC sees Republican challengers ramping up earlier than ever and has decided to begin defining potential opponents early. Operatives are already assembling research and drafting unflattering narratives to push about the leading possible candidates.
Even though the planning is still very preliminary, the campaign is likely to launch in just over a year. President Bill Clinton opened his second presidential campaign in the March after his first midterm congressional elections, and President George W. Bush opened Bush-Cheney '04 a month later in the political cycle. Aides expect Obama to hew to a similar schedule.
A president’s reelection campaign — “the reelect,” as Obama intimates are already calling it — is a massive, lavishly funded machine that hires hundreds of people and spends hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out the mechanics of a national campaign — while the candidate and many of his top aides continue their day job of running the free world.
Obama's campaign will get a head start from the large machine he has built at the DNC, including Organizing for America, the successor to his campaign grassroots operation. OFA is now a DNC project with staff in all 50 states, and has worked to keep Obama's army active through engagement on health care and other issues.
Messina, the likely manager, largely ran the operations part of the 2008 campaign after joining in June, while Plouffe focused on the big picture. Advisers said Messina is valued for his relationship on Capitol Hill, where he was chief of staff to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), and advised other campaigns, including Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
“Jim can bring the bare knuckles, and he can make sure members are advocating for the president,” a colleague said.
The question of where to locate the campaign has not been decided by the president, and is the subject of much internal speculation.
Top sources say they will be surprised if the headquarters is not in Chicago, which will always hold a certain magic for the president and first lady Michelle Obama. Obama for America senior staff felt there was a huge advantage in having distance from insiders in Washington who were constantly giving advice and asking for things. And Obama advisers see the advantages George W. Bush reaped by basing his original campaign in Austin, giving it a beyond-the-Beltway aura.
"We were able to focus on nothing but the campaign," said one Obama for America veteran who plans to saddle up again. "We didn't play the inside-Washington game, and that's a huge piece of who we are."
However, some top advisers are skeptical that running the campaign from Chicago would have the same advantages that it did last time, since face-to-face contact will be necessary between top officials from the different arms of Obama’s operation.
"It was hard enough to get people to move there in 2007," said one Obama for America alumnus.
A compromise might be to follow the example of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign and put the office in Virginia, a swing state.
The themes for Obama’s campaign are not yet chosen, but a top adviser said not to expect a radical surprise: “He knows who he is.”