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Obama strategist: 'Act like an insurgent campaign'

April 26, 2011|By James Oliphant | Washington Bureau

For President Obama’s reelection campaign, “yes, we can” is being replaced by “scratch and claw.”

A chief strategist for that campaign, Jim Messina, has laid out a vision for the president’s supporters in an email, warning that the landscape for Obama’s prospects in 2012 is a changed one from the last election.

“If we just run that same campaign, we stand a good chance of losing,” Messina said.

Messina’s presentation came in the form of a video slide show and was intended -- much like the official video that launched Obama’s reelection bid -- to speak directly to the rank-and-file Democrats that drove his first campaign, and to inspire them to extend themselves one final time.

But unlike that first video, Messina's mission was to engage the minds, not the hearts, of the Obama faithful.

“This campaign is only going to be as strong as the grass roots,” Messina warned.

Recapturing the starry-eyed magic of 2008 might be impossible for Obama and his team -- the realities of governing the country through wars and recession, along with debates over healthcare and spending, has brought the president down to earth -- but that didn’t stop Messina from trying to paint the reelection bid as a contest against established Republican and corporate interests.

The biggest change since 2008, Messina said, has been the spread of the nonprofit groups that can amass and rain millions of dollars on elections, all without disclosing their donors.

“It’s fundamentally changed the way campaigns are funded,” he said. “We have to compete with that. We have to understand it’s going to be there.”

Messina wants volunteers for Obama to turn back the clock in one respect, however.

“We ought to not to act like an incumbent,” Messina said. “We ought to act like an insurgent campaign that wakes up every single day trying to get every single vote we can. So, every single day we ought to go scratch and claw for those votes.”

Positioned at the Obama reelection campaign headquarters in Chicago, the job of Messina and his staff is to set up that outside game, the door-to-door  and social-media operation that so benefitted Obama in 2008, expanding the American electoral map for Democrats and leading to a rout of Sen. John McCain.

But despite Messina's "Les Miserables" message, incumbency has its privileges, one that the president, like those before him, has shown little reluctance to exploit.

Last week was a prime example, as the president mixed public, policy-driven town-hall events in California, Nevada and elsewhere, along with the attendant media coverage, while attending closed-door fundraisers in the evening.

On Tuesday, Obama will sit for interviews with local media outlets from key campaign states such as Ohio and Virginia. On Wednesday, the president will jet on Air Force One first to Chicago, where he and Michelle Obama will tape an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s program, and then head on to New York City, where he’ll attend a $35,800-a-person fundraiser at a private home before moving on to a gala dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

On Friday, the president will travel with his family to Florida view the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour (along with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona), and then deliver a commencement speech at a Miami college.

Such is a president’s inside game. By playing both, by building an operation cemented around insurgency and incumbency, Obama and his reelection team hope to re-create the outcome, if not the soul, of their first White House run. And this time around, they may prefer clear heads to star-filled eyes.

james.oliphant@latimes.com

View Messina's presentation here:

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