And now from the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.
There was a big reunion in Chicago last week to mark the 15th anniversary of the election of Barack Obama. So I grabbed four great friends, the speechwriter Jon Favreau, the logistics maestro Alyssa Mastromonaco, Robert Gibbs, who was the communications director of the campaign, and Reggie Love, Obama's body man who traveled the country with him. All folks I love, appreciate and respect. We spent years together on an amazing journey, and an hour last week swapping memories I wanted to share with you.
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
That was Barack Obama on November 4th, 2008, 15 years ago tomorrow as we sit here. And this is a special edition of The Axe Files, because I am together with four of my favorite people on the planet. Jon Favreau, Alyssa Mastromonaco, Robert Gibbs and Reggie Love. All key players in the campaign that led to that night. And it's hard to describe what a journey like that is, you guys. But being with you guys is like being fellow astronauts with fellow astronauts who you went to the moon together with. It's like you. I can not see you for a long time, and then there's this immediate bond. So I'm so thrilled to see you guys. And I'll just, I just want to go around for a second on that moment. And Favs, you had a special relationship to that moment, because you worked with him on that speech. Talk about that, because you were 22 years old when you started working for Barack Obama.
Everybody can do the math about how old you are.
But what was it like working on that particular speech? I mean, were you sort of, was the magnitude of the thing clear to you?
It was. I was tired. As I was always tired. The speechwriting team, we had to do three different drafts. And so there was a concession speech, which I did not work on. Sarah Hurwitz, I believe, did. There was a too close to call speech, and then there was this speech. And so I spent a lot of time on that. And I did get very nostalgic as I was writing it and just thinking about the campaign and thinking about what we had all been through together. But what really got me was learning the story that we, that he tells at the end of that speech about Ann Nixon Cooper, the woman from Atlanta who stood in line for 3 hours to vote, which was notable because she's 103 years old. And then, of course, we end the speech by talking about all that she had been through in her life and all the progress she had seen. So I remember getting a little misty when I wrote that one. But.
How did that come about? When when did that story?
A couple of days before the election. I was just reading the news and I saw on CNN the story about this woman who had stood in line for 3 hours and she was over 100. I was like, wow.
Yeah. And I just, I couldn't believe I was like I couldn't believe.
I guess when you're 103, early voting is advisable.
'And I was just so moved by the story. And I thought about the fact that when she was born, she couldn't vote for two reasons, because she was a woman and because she was African-American. And then she lived through two world wars and she lived through civil rights and women's rights, workers rights. And so I thought it was a nice, nice way to end, end the speech. And it was interesting when the president called to make final edits to the speech when it looked like we were going to win.
He was just Barack back then.
Yeah, I know, it's weird to say. We finished the speech and then Tommy Vietor looks at me and he's like, We should probably call her and like, find her and let her know she's going to be in the speech. So we had the research team look and find her, and I called her, and this very frail woman answers the phone, and I tell her who I am and I tell her what's about to happen. And she stops and she pauses for a minute. Then she goes, Is it going to be on TV? It's like, Yeah, it's going to be on TV. And then she stops and she goes, What channel is it going to be on? I was like, it's going to be on all the channels.
Then she knew you were a crank caller.
And then she said, Wow. She's like, I'm so happy. I'm so proud. And then and then they called it. And then I, like, hid under my desk and was on the phone with her for a few extra seconds. So it was a pretty cool moment.
Yeah. Yeah. Alyss, that. 250,000 people in Grant Park. People who don't know you because this is a podcast should know you're, like, not a tall person.
I am not. I am five two on a good day.
Wait, I didn't think we were going to go over.
But you pulled, you pulled these things off like, serially, for two years. Like the most amazing thing from the opening stanza of the campaign at the announcement when you had to find 200, 20,000 hand warmers the night before because it was going to be zero.
And we we insisted on it being out.
Over the objection of Mrs. Obama. And talk about the planning of that event. How did that come together?
Well, you know, the funny thing is, like, I think for all of us on a campaign, and I feel specifically tethered to Favs on, this because we had been on the Kerry campaign where we were winning until we lost. And so it haunts you when you're on another campaign and you're planning for the end. And with my job, you have less and less to do the closer you get to Election Day. And so so election night became sort of everybody's sort of rallying point. And, you know, we wanted it to be at Grant Park. We were really worried it was going to be as cold as Springfield was. But, you know, the weather gods shined on us. I think it was 75 degrees that day. But, you know, you wanted it to be something that was accessible. No matter what, it was going to be an important night for people. And so you wanted a site that was going to be accessible and easy for people to get to. If 250,000 people came, you wanted it to be amazing.
Did you expect that there would be that many?
No, no, no, no, no. I think we've got maybe like 100,000. I thought, you know, that that was. Because we'd been working with the city of Chicago and stuff. I think in our mind we were like, okay, so let's ballpark it at 100,000.
Of course, this was a piece of cake for you, because in the campaign in 2008, we also went to Germany.
We did. We went to Berlin.
And spoke at the Tiergarten near the Brandenberg Gate.
And that was like 250,000.
And we had we had other events too, that were, you know, in in in Saint Louis, in Kansas City and in Seattle. I think we had events that were well over 100,000. But this was different. He needed to look presidential. You know, we wanted everybody to have the access, the foreign press, the our press, traveling press, friends and family. And so, you know, it is something that there is not a moment when you see those pictures from election night that I don't feel just like extreme pride. I mean, like we had to include the bulletproof glass up on the stage. I mean, people forget everything you have to. We had to pick the song. Like, what's the song that if he wins, like, what's the song you play? For those listening, it was the theme to Remember the Titans. But, you know, there are so many little, little things. But my favorite memory of the night, which Fabs and I were talking about the other day, is that because he won, Lakeshore Drive was shut down. He was the president elect. And Malia said to then President elect Obama in the car, Daddy, I don't think anyone came to your party. And he told and like after he gave the speech, he was in the tent where all of us were and everyone was just kind of like Janet from another planet, like none of us knew what to say to each other. I mean, I think it was just so like, you know, you were completely just on another planet. And and it was the first story that he told me. I was standing with Dan Pfeiffer. He's like, You guys are not going to believe what Malia said. And we're like, Yeah, you're like the president elect now. And he's like, Yeah.
Gibbs, I know you remember us going over when the race was called to the suite. Reggie, you were probably in the suite, right that night?
Yeah. So I want to talk to both of you about this, because and you guys, as veterans of the Kerry campaign four years earlier will know this reference immediately. But when we got the exit polls and I think when I got the exit poll from Ohio, I called them and I told them and I said, this looks good, but I'm not going to make the mistake that our friend Bob Shrum made four years ago. I'm not going to say, let me be the first to call you, Mr. President, and I'm not going to congratulate you until we actually count some votes. And the first thing he said, we went over to the suite at the Hyatt where Reggie, you and the family and some friends were taking in the returns, and we walk in and the first thing he said was, Can you congratulate me now? But tell me about your reflections of that. Other than that there were pictures of us with him and David Plouffe, who came over with us. The campaign, a great campaign manager, skinny little S.O.B., and the two of you.
Are you talking about the president elect?
Well, the two of them were skinny, skinny guys in the middle.
I know the picture Axe is talking about.
We were like big, big, we were like big white buns. It was like a Obama Plouffe sandwich. And we were the rolls.
I think it was the winners of the pie eating contest with the other candidates.
I put on 40 pounds in that race.
The last week, I think I did too. What I remember most about being in and around that after as it was sort of being called and whatnot, is one was I think just the, we were exhausted. Physically and emotionally. And Reggie can talk about this, too, we, those last few days on the road were both exhilarating. We had these enormous crowds in Manassas, but we were also that day, that Monday, dealing with the fact that, you know, his grandmother passed away.
And that sort of started kind of early in the morning. I got a call, Michelle's looking for him. I'm pretty sure he's with Reggie at the gym. And so we went through the emotion of all that on Monday. There's just the physical exhaustion of the end of this. That night, you begin to also think through the enormity of what's about to happen. We really would have loved like a week or two to just bask in.
Amen. Oh, my God.
Our brilliance. And then almost immediately, it's,.
Here's what you have to deal with. And then I think the last thing was, you know, just trying to wrestle with and enjoyed the sheer improbability of what we had been through. I mean, when this whole thing started in sort of late 2006 with the meetings and then early 2007, I mean, I didn't think the odds were in our favor. I wouldn't have bet necessarily on us at the very beginning. I remember thinking, too, that that Hyatt is the, four years earlier we'd been in that Hyatt celebrating the election of a U.S. senator. And I thought, how in the world are we back four years later with the same guy, now the president elect of the United States? So there's I think just this confluence of things. And I remember being in a room with him. We after we'd gone over it, he was signing books and, they, but they hadn't officially called it, were just sort of sitting there, you know, in that room, and you, you. Again everyone knows. Like I love when Favreau's like, we had a concession and a too close to call speech.
Yeah, well, it's bad luck not to have a concession speech.
It's 15 years later, and I'm still getting teary eyed.
I love it. But, you know, I just remember being in that room and, you know, it's that sort of unspoken thing where they haven't called it. But everybody sort of. I know. He knows. And I will say, like, they're just, even in the enormity of what was about to happen, it just didn't feel different. Like, I love when Alyssa just said, like, you know, walked over to tell them, guess what Malia said? I mean, he just didn't. I know there's a moment where he is and feels and becomes something different, but it didn't.
Well, I'll tell you something that I remember. First of all, we went over to the Hyatt and there were a hell of a lot more security there and a lot more Secret Service. So we had to walk up several flights of stairs, because the elevators were cut off. There were guys with big guns in that staircase, and it was it was decidedly different. But we go in the room and, maybe I imagine this, I don't think I did, but there was a sobriety to him. It was as if the weight had descended that he understood at some level.
Yeah, And no doubt it was a different thing. You know, it's sort of like it's a strange thing that happens when the power descends on a person and the realization of what that means. But I sure thought I saw a kind of, you know, there wasn't this sort of.
Yeah, he was all accounts holding his mother in law's hand.
They were just sitting there watching.
Yeah. Yeah. Reggie, what was it like in that suite that night?
One, I think Gibbs point, exhaustion, man. Alyssa and her team were amazing, and the utilization rates at the time throughout that two years was like nothing else.
You mean she kicked their ass? Is that what you mean?
High fives here for those who aren't watching.
I remember we. We'd been on that same plane for the whole year, and I, and we'd accumulated so much stuff, and a lot of people had went home to vote. I had voted absentee, so I was like the last person at the airport, like, cleaning the plane the night before Election Day and just remember myself being absolutely exhausted. But, you know, you also think about the journey, right? That next day, he's president elect. I'm getting a call on my cell phone from Sarkozy. And a year ago, I'm like dialing high schoolers in Iowa for their, like, caucus votes.
I could see Reg Googling Sarkozy. Sounds familiar.
But I do think the biggest piece of it, and, you know, and I think about his remarks last night, I think that whole campaign kind of had this like feeling of like not only hope but like sacrifice. Right. That, you know, a lot of people wanted to put their own sort of privilege at risk to do something that had never been done that was like bigger than ourselves. And maybe everything might not have been done perfectly, but it was done with like so much, like love and energy that, you know, even with the fatigue, never. You never felt as tired as you probably should have.
Yeah. You know, that only sets in when when you have a chance to reflect on it. But.
That's why we're still tired.
In the room. In the room. It just seemed very low key to me when we showed up there. Were. Was that just because people were tired, or was there a, did everybody have a sense of holy smokes, this is, this is a big deal.
I think a big deal. Definitely tired. But I also think even though at the beginning of the campaign, there was this point where people thought that this is a long shot. I don't know when it happened, but like somewhere along the way, I think he kind of thought he was going to win. You know, and so I don't I don't think it was like a moment where you hit like a half court shot to win a game. I think it was more like we executed and now we've got more work to do.
Well, Axe, your point about sort of him feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with winning. I feel like that started during the financial crisis.
And when it, first of all, when the polls.
September 15, Lehman Brothers collapses in 2008, and you recognize you're going to be inheriting a mess.
And I remember he went to that meeting at the White House. He and McCain and Bush and Pelosi and Hank Paulson and everyone else. And it was, you know, now it's been reported, but it was a shit show of a meeting. And he called us all afterwards. We all got on a call. And I remember he said, We have to win.
Like, and, and I'm not saying this because I want to be. I'm, we have to, because no one in there had any idea they were doing. McCain didn't. Bush didn't. So we he, you could tell that he felt the seriousness of the moment from that moment on. To that point.
To that point, I mean, all of a sudden, our schedule was littered not with calls to governors or representatives about get out the vote.
No, I was getting Tim Geithner to Florida.
Tim Geithner to Florida, or, you know, Obama's on.
Who was still head of the New York Fed back then.
Right. With. But he's on the phone with Hank Paulson from Treasury. He's on the phone.
You were getting him to Florida because he wanted to he.
He wanted to talk to him.
To interview him for the treasury secretary job.
But he's on the phone with Warren Buffett. He's I mean, all of a sudden, there's this. There is that machination of all of a sudden he's playing. And I think this was important for the debates. It was important for the preparation. But there was that moment or series of moments that started with the collapse that, you know, you had to begin to do what the job was going to be, because you had to be informed, you had to be active. And quite frankly, there, you know, give this credit to the Bush administration. They were consultative because they understood that somebody was going, they were going to have to pass this. This was not going to get fixed by January 20th, and somebody was going to inherit.
I was I remember being up till like one in the morning many nights with Austan Goolsbee on the phone taking the macroeconomics class I never took in college. Learning about credit default swaps so we could explain them to people.
For some reason we, Austan was in my office at the beginning of the campaign, so I got a macroeconomics lesson, whether I wanted it or not, because he wouldn't shut up.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You know, the thing that we never talked about, or very, very rarely in the campaign, was the historic nature of it, because our assumption was that didn't need to be said. Everybody understood it. And he was running to be president of the whole United States, not just to be a historic, you know, first. But you couldn't help but think about that that night. And what was striking, right before we left for the speech, on television was also these celebrations from all around the world. It was like, wow, America is being America. And that was something, you know, you guys you were you guys were in the meeting when we first started discussing whether he would run. And it was, that was when the Obama for America nascent organization was eight people, including Michelle and Barack.
In your office.
Yeah. And I don't know if you remember Michelle asking him, like, what can you do that no one else can do? Because she wasn't, she was thinking like, what is this going to do to the Obama family lives? She was like, why do we have to do this? And he said, Well, the one thing I know is that kids all over this country will think, there are millions of kids who will think of themselves differently and their prospects differently. And I think the world will look at us differently. That was really clear that night.
I mean, when I talked about the improbability of the whole thing, that's that's part of what I meant. To have watched the journey. And I. I know you remember this. We talk about it from time to time. When we were in Denver and won the nomination, you and I were sort of where we all kind of were, sort of off stage watching the fireworks and whatnot. And I don't remember if I cried on election night, but I remember just.
I remember, I was standing next to you.
Bawling when he won the nomination.
He accepted the nomination, on the night, on the anniversary of Dr. King's speech. At the. Who could have planned that? I mean, the date of the convention was chosen.
Sorry. I'm still here.
The date of the convention. I give you credit for almost anything.
I was just, I'm kidding!
But. But that was chosen well before we were the nominee. But, you know, I. I stood next to you, and, like, you're a hard case, Gibbs. Like, nobody, nobody, nobody expects to see.
For listeners, that's a compliment.
You cry. And I saw the tears coming down your face, and I knew why. Explain why.
I mean, I'd grown up in Alabama. And look, I grew up in a great town in Alabama. I grew up in a university town, so it felt a little different. But you didn't have to go far outside of that town, you know, to feel racial tension. And and growing up in that, and most of my formative political experiences were in the South, and race was and I think in many ways still is this the predominant factor in our politics. And the sheer idea of this, just the enormity, again, of what this was going to do. And it crystallized finally many weeks after. And my then very young son had one of those, you know, laminated placemats because, you know, they make a mess, and it's the presidents. And it's all the presidents. And it's 43 white dudes, some in powdered wigs, and there's some in stuffy looking suits. And then the last one is this Black guy. And I remember I remember distinctly walking by that placemat one morning and looking at it and realizing that sort of what Barack said, that my son and the people that were his age and older would actually never now look at the office and think what I thought was amazing and unique. They would think, Yeah, we were there. Yeah, That happened. You know, And I thought, that's the great promise of what America is.
Well, Reggie, I remember the first time I ever met you, you were at the front desk of the Senate office.
But I know a guy who most people listening to this podcast won't, whose name won't be recognizable. Pete Rouse, who was the chief of staff.
Was Pete Rouse was for years and years the top aide in the Senate to Tom Daschle, who became majority leader. And he was referred to as the the 101st senator because he had some. He was so deft at moving things along in the Senate. And it was a big thing when he agreed to be, Daschle was defeated, and he, Pete Rouse, became his chief of staff. But I remember him telling me about you. And he said, I think, you know, Reggie could be very helpful down the line here. We're grooming him for bigger things here. And you ended up being, from the beginning, Senator Obama's body person, but you were also a young Black man. Not now, but then.
And and tell me what your feelings were that night.
'I mean, look for me. You guys may not even know this, but my my grandmother, who was not alive when Obama was sworn into office, she was the first African-American woman to ever work for Social Security in the state of South Carolina. She used to.
Favreau, you didn't get this into a speech?
I, Reggie, hasn't run yet. Call me up.
She used to get on a segregated bus, take it across town, and was the only person of color there. And, you know, when my mom finally came to the White House, she cried because she was like, you know, I wish my mother, your grandmother, could have been here to see this. And not because of the opportunity to be there and to be a part of it, but because for her whole life she was on a fight. And she basically chaired her chapter of the NAACP, organized voters, like did all these things that she never got paid a dollar to do because, you know, she knew that there was work and sacrifice that had to go into building what we believed could be a better version of the place that we have. And so I think it's like when you see someone named Barack Hussein Obama being elected to president, you think, everyone thinks like, his famous quote, or signature, dream big dreams, because dreams are free. And like, we shouldn't feel like the world is too complicated and too complex that we can't actually dream about a world that we don't know today.
'You know what, for me, Reg, it's a similar feeling. So my my grandma, my Oma, she was from Germany. She and her family were righteous Gentiles. They helped the Jews out of Germany during the Holocaust. Her uncles were taken to Auschwitz, you know, like liberated by Americans. She never talked about it until Barack Obama ran for president. And I saw her not that far before Election Day. And she said, Shotzi, if he wins, it will mean the world is a truly good place. And when he won, she and my uncle, who was like a year old when they left Germany, they both--not cry. You've never seen two people who have cried less in your life. The two of them together were like, We can breathe now. Like we believe the world has really changed now. And blessedly, she died before Trump became president. But like.
It was it was a real like a way. I had a vision of how I thought it would change the world for younger people. It never registered to me how much it could mean for, you know, just someone like her.
And he understood this. He didn't show it. And as you said, he didn't talk as much about this, but he understood it. He had to balance it. It was always in his thinking. And I think he also understood the enormous expectations. I don't think I've told this story to any of you. I've told it to maybe two people ever. But this seems like a good place.
The statute of limitations has run.
Do I ned my tissue?
It's just between us here.
Right. And a few and a dozen or so listeners.
I can't believe I invite you on here and you diss the podcast.
I know. This will be worth it in a second. So the first political trip we took. When we got to the Senate, we're like, heads down. We're not going to do this national stuff. We're heads down.
Workhorse, not show horse.
And then in February, really late January of that first year in the Senate, 2005, John Lewis, John Lewis says, I need you to come down and do a fundraiser for me. I remember he comes in, he says John Lewis wants John Lewis was John Lewis doesn't have a, like there's not a contested race. What do you mean he needs to do a fundraiser? Well, it's sort of a fundraiser, but it's kind of a Martin Luther King breakfast. Okay. You should say yes to John Lewis.
They're like, oh, you're going to you're going to write a speech for John Lewis's 65th birthday. Coretta Scott King's going to be there. And Ethel Kennedy. So cool. White dude from suburban Boston at 21 years old, yeah, let's do it.
We go. We go to see Coretta Scott King in her apartment with all these pictures of Martin Luther King Jr up. And I remember we were. I don't know, we didn't travel with a big group then. So it's just me, and I probably shouldn't even have been in the room. But it's the two of us sitting on a couch opposite of her and we're talking. And at one point she just looks at him and she says, we always knew you'd come.
And I just got chills saying it again.
And. And we went on talking and whatever, and we walked out of that apartment and we both just looked at each other. Didn't say anything about it, but just looked at each other and knew what she had just said.
Yeah, well, you remember the rehearsal for.
Yeah, I was just going to say.
The speech. Yeah. Talk about that.
Well, because the Democratic Convention speech where he would accept the nomination was on the anniversary of King's March on Washington I Have a Dream speech, we recognize that towards the end of the speech. We weren't too explicit. We're talking about all of. I mean. We really it was trying to balance it for political reasons. It was also you didn't need to hit this too hard, right? Like it was subtle grace notes everywhere and it was implicit. Everyone understood. And so I think the way that the end of the speech began was years ago, the preacher, and we didn't even say his name.
So he was practicing the speech for the first time and it was the day before the speech. And we're in this like little hotel room.
There's one interruption when my chicken Caesar came.
Yeah. We're sitting there and he's he's getting to the beg, he's at the beginning of the speech. He's hitting the first applause line, and suddenly there's a knock on the door. Someone holding a silver tray. Someone order lunch? And Obama's like, What?
He said, yeah, anybody order a chicken Caesar? And I'm like, I kind of slowly put my hand up. And he says, Axe, I'm rehearsing my speech for the first time and you're interrupting me for your chicken Caesar salad?
He said, Sorry, sorry, I'm interrupting your lunch with my convention speech. So anyway, so then after that, he keeps going and keeps going, and then he gets to the part about the march, and about the speech, and the March on Washington, and he stops and he starts choking up and he walks into the bathroom and he said, I need I need a minute. And I had never seen him.
I'd never seen him. And I'd never seen him, like, show that much emotion, particularly about the historic moment that was about to come.
And he came out and he said, I'm sorry. He said, the enormity of this just kind of.
Yeah, hit him for the first time.
Yeah. On this subject, I had a kind of an epiphany about this whole the sort of what that meant for him after he became president and he was going to nominate Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Another historic moment. And he asked me to go over and talk to her. We sneaked her into the White House. She did a series of interviews. And I said, well, I'm not a lawyer, so. He said, don't worry, I can handle that part. I'm a lawyer. And he said, I just want you to know. I want you to tell me how you think she'll hold up in the process. So I went over and I chatted with the then Judge Sotomayor, and I said, Is there anything about this process that worries you? I mean. And she said, Yes, I'm worried that I won't measure up. And I thought about it and it was pretty clear right away what she was saying, because she was saying, I'm not just carrying my own hopes here, but the hopes of a lot of young Latinos and Latinas. And it made me think about our guy in a different way, because he handled it with such grace. But what an extraordinary burden to know that.
'I mean, the line that always makes me cry every time I hear it or think about it is from Ta-Nehisi Coates about Obama's presidency when he said, for eight years he walked on ice and never fell.
About handling race and the historic nature of the presidency. And it just it always gets me because I think how difficult that must have been for him and how much he had to internalize and how alone he was with a lot of that. And all the like, you know what everyone what some people read is caution or aloofness or this or that. It was him trying to balance all of these different equities and sort of the weight of the world on his shoulders, and like no one else could understand that.
I would I would joke with him sometimes, and I'd be like, you know, sir, if you get this wrong, not only will you be the first, you'll be the last.
Way to balance that introspection with a little.
Tell your story about the beginning of the campaign, and Reggie and on the plane.
Yeah. So we were back in Chicago, and we were watching sort of tapes of him kind of campaigning. And it was not good, right? The speeches were sort of meandering. And I think the challenge was that people came thinking they were going to see the 2004 convention speech at every event that he did. And that you'd go away with this like, oh, my God, hopeful, run through the wall feeling. But it also was you could tell structurally he just didn't.
He was trying to find he was trying to find the groove.
He didn't have a rhythm, he didn't have any of this.
'He was also trying to out-policy hillary Clinton.
He was out trying to. All that stuff.
I'm just as smart as she is. I know just as much about.
Yeah. But we've got to have a health care plan. And so all these things. We're going to get to that. It's all going to be good. Just, you know. So I got tasked to go to Washington and fly with him to Iowa with the express sort of point of view of like just have a conversation with him and try to figure out what's in his head and why he won't do this. And I could tell immediately when I got into the Senate office and I saw him and and there was a vote in the Senate, he said, come on, walk with me to the elevator. And we were talking and then the elevator comes. Walk with me. Just go down to the subway, walk with me. And then we get to the subway, he's like, just come on over to the cloakroom. And I you know, I'm thinking to myself, okay, he's, I'm now all the way over in the Capitol. Right? And it's like he's just looking for some comfort, right? Some like cocoon, because he just doesn't feel right. And so we get on the plane that night to Iowa and I'm I've been thinking for like the last 20 minutes before the flight, like, I don't want to, like, just jam him. But at like, at what point do we just want to have this just conversation about how to get this rhythm, how to make him comfortable? And I don't like to fly at this point.
Yes. There are some stories about that.
And so I'm I'm sitting backwards, so I'm like, Oh, Jesus, You know, I gotta fly backwards. And the aisle's in front of me and on the left side was Obama. And on the right side, the front row is young Reggie Love.
Who gets the face the right way.
He was facing the right way. And he's, you know. And in not too far into the flight, because I figured this might be a longer conversation. It's a couple hour flights to Iowa. I said. How do you feel? How do you feel out there? It's basically paraphrased, not good. And I said, I, I was like, alright, I need a I need a kind of a bigger icebreaker to like to really get this conversation. I said, sir, are you having any fun? And he says, None, none at all. Reggie is listening to his conversation. Slaps Obama on the arm and says, man, I'm having the time of my life!
If it's any consolation, I'm having the time of my life. And I look at Reggie down like Reggie, I'm trying to. This is a serious political intervention. This is not what's happened with Reggie Love. But but, but it was.
But it probably was. It probably broke the ice.
It did. It did. And it allowed him.
That's one of Reggie's great talents.
Wait, and you know how I know that story? Because the next day when I talked to then Barack, I said I said, okay, how are you doing? He goes, uh, I don't know, but Reggie's having the time of his life.
But it wasn't. It wasn't. It was there was that period of time that we sort of we had to kind of retool him and retool this rhythm of him. And it reminded me of the very start of the the U.S. Senate race in 2004. I came on in April. He'd won the nomination. And every day his schedule would go out and it would start with these three meetings. And then the workout would be like at 4:00 in the afternoon and every night, overnight, he would respond to everybody and say, I'm changing the schedule. I'm working out in the morning. And so I was there for like four days and this happened for four days. And I went to the scheduler and I was like, I have an idea. I think we should start him with the workout. And again, you had to, he had to understand, we had to understand those rhythms. We had to put him in a position.
We should point out, Alyssa was not involved in the Senate race.
She was. She was working on a presidential race.
But but but he he was not good. He was stilted. It wasn't coming through. And the truth is, Reggie will remember this. This was an ongoing process throughout the campaign, on the road and back at the headquarters.
The entire subject, the title of my first book is based on this very concept. Who thought this was a good idea? Because those are the emails I would get from these fools on the road all the time.
Yeah, but it was we continually had to figure out, the whole campaign did, because the premise on this, on a presidential campaign is you've got to go out there and perform either in a room of ten people, in a room of 100 people in a room of 10,000 people. Every moment is this moment where somebody out there in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada is measuring whether or not when they see you or do they see a president? And we had to make sure that we could uncluttered his mind and uncluttered his schedule. And we love him. I love him.
You don't have to. I'm not sure he's going to listen to the podcast, so you can just make your point.
Yeah. Yeah, He's going to listen. You know he is. But he thinks he can do all of what we do a little bit better than we do. Plus what he does.
He specifically told me that was not the case for me. Just FYI.
Yes. That's probably true. You were probably the only person who is exempt.
'But. But. But what that meant was we had to think ahead, and again, de-clutter all of that stuff. Because if he got, if he walked in somewhere and it didn't feel right or like, Oh, hey, we added these three things, you get, the performance gets off. And that, and again, there were times in which again we he wasn't connecting, not just because he wasn't connecting, but we weren't helping him connect. And so that whole, a lot of the campaign there's there's two parts of the campaign, right? There's the campaign that happens in all the states, the organizers, the ads and all this kind of stuff. And then the other part of the campaign is that traveling of him and all that goes, the speechwriting that goes into it, all of the advance and logistics and making sure the music plays and the people are there.
'We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. It was interesting because it wasn't just him, but all of us sort of recognizing what our comparative advantage was in the race, message-wise. And it was really late in the year sort of when he was making the speech at the Iowa.
The Jefferson Jackson dinner.
Yeah, Yeah. But, you know, something happened in that campaign. Funny about campaigns. You'll remember this, Reggie, because you're aparty to all of these moments. But we had a debate in that spring, late spring, remember this? And he got asked whether he would sit down with hostile leaders, I guess without precondition. And he said yes. And they, all of the people on the stage, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, they all jumped on him about being naive. And in the spin room, Mark Penn, who was working for Hillary Clinton, said that was a fatal mistake. Their whole thing was his lack of experience was a deficit at a time when people were really sick of Washington politicians, and particularly on issues of foreign policy and national security, because all those folks had voted for the Iraq war. But it was like a light switch went off in his head and he said. Well, he must have shared some of this with you as well. Like, I'm not here to affirm the status quo. I'm here to challenge it. And that was sort of when everything started falling into place.
Well, I think for a while, and this is part of him giving these rambling speeches early on, we tried to play on Hillary Clinton's field, which is she was experienced. She had all this policy knowledge. And he thought, and I think some of us thought like, okay, well, if he can match her on that, if he can talk about how smart he is and how much policy he knows, then maybe we can, you know, maybe we can take her on. And then I think at that moment was when, you're right, suddenly the message became clear, which is he's running against not just Hillary Clinton, not Joe Biden, not Chris Dodd, he's run against Washington and the prevailing, quote unquote, wisdom of Washington that has not been you know, that has not gotten us into a good place.
The thing is that we kind of knew that. I mean, if you go back to the announcement speech that you wrote, that was it was really sort of a manifesto for change. But integrating that into the day to day.
Well, we needed proof points, too.
Well he got that. He got that the morning after. We're, I remember being in the car, driving to the airport in Charleston. And we were all on the call, and I was sitting next to.
We had a morning call every day, but he would rarely be on it.
And he wasn't on this one.
Not the morning call for him.
No, he was at the gym. That's why we looked like we won the pie eating contest at the end of the race because we were. So. But I remember he could hear me on the call and we were sort of plotting and planning, well, we could get some validators from national security out there, and maybe we could sort of. And I remember, he sort of tapped me on shoulder. He said Gibbs, Gibbs, we're not apologizing for anything.
He got on the call. He said.
I don't want anybody backing off. He said he said, I, I said what I, I meant. And I think these are the big foreign policy geniuses who got us into the thing we're in. And this is the problem with Washington. It's like it's a self affirming bubble. Yeah. And yeah, no, he he was.
And 15 years later, Iran is a thriving democracy.
But no, but to your point, like he felt different talking about that. He felt liberated in that way. We had we had people, you know, we went to New Hampshire and we had you know, you had people endorsing him, saying, you know what? No, this is, we do need something different. And to your point, Favreau's point, we were we were sort of locked in this, well, maybe we can, we'l prove we're just as experienced as her. And itwas sort of like, wait a minute. Our lane in different.
We're never going to beat her on that.
And by the end, she was then playing on our field, because she had that brilliant slogan. Strength plus experience equals change.
Yeah. Everybody was taking their calculators out. Yeah.
Squared. It's a squared thing.
So, you guys, I mentioned this. You guys were veterans of the Kerry campaign. You in a high up place there. You were scheduling him in that campaign. By the way, I have to say this because someone is going to ask, I didn't complete the thought that when I mentioned that you were five foot two because I I called you because my name for you in the campaign was the little general.
Yes. It's true. you and Oprah.
Because you. Because because.
You could move mountains. So.
But. But tell me about what it was like to be on a campaign that didn't win and what it was like. You started this this thought before.
I mean, Gibbs had so much fun, he left it.
Pretty pretty soon into it.
There's a great story with Favreau on that that we won't tell.
Yeah, I was scheduling Gibbs on that campaign. It was it was brutal. It's something that you, you know, like. Look it was a that was a very difficult campaign. It was I felt like blessed to have an opportunity to even be on any campaign. I was right out of college. I was 22 years old. But it was. When you're at election night, you know, and you see the exit polls coming in, and again, Bob Shrum, the chief strategist at the time, was like the exit polls are looking great, President Kerry, this is great. You know. And then suddenly the returns are coming in. It doesn't happen. It's crushing. It's crushing. I remember the, I was we were in Boston at the time, and I'm from just north of Boston, so I went home the next day, and I was just sitting at my parents house by myself. They were both at work, and I was just like staring into the abyss, like, I don't think I want to do politics anymore.
That, Favs, that is why. So Kerry campaign, let's revisit. Exit polls are coming out. Alyssa almost everyone else on the campaign, drunk by 6:00. By 9:00, they're like, sober up. You need to call Faneuil Hall and see if there's going to be a concession, if we can do a concession speech, there maybe. So then fast forward to finding a new job. And like I got a call from Gibbs, my beloved, AOL Instant Messenger, Roberto Gibbs, pops up and he.
Same with me, that's how I got it, too.
And he sayd, do you need a job? And I said, you know what? This is going to be terrific, because the junior senator from Illinois whose name is Barack Hussein Obama is never going to run for president.
But the thing was that on election night when we were talking about it, my memories and my reaction to four years earlier was so strong, I wouldn't leave the headquarters. I sat there alone at 233 North Michigan, because I'm like, if I celebrate, I'm going to jinx everything. And ultimately I was evacuated by my beloved Danielle and Jessica, who were like, Come on, let's go. But it was so strong and real to me that like how we handled it in 2004 that it was like, you know, as as our friend Dennis McDonough would say, measure twice, cut once. And so that was that was me on election night.
Beyond the the day itself, what was the feel of these campaigns? And look, I'm not I'm not denigrating John Kerry because, I think the Obama campaign was different than. I've been involved in a bunch of presidential campaigns, too, was was different. Talk about the difference. I'm not going to ask you this question, Reggie, because you were a newbie when you got into. You got into politics at the highest level here and had the you won the Super Bowl as a rookie.
I was a staff assistant for a year. I was.
Deputy director of the political action committee.
No, but you hadn't been on a campaign.
Not been on a campaign. I'd only been at the Hope Flood.
The Kerry campaign was based in Washington.
The worst idea ever.
Right. And it felt like a Washington campaign little less so in the primary because, you know, we were behind in the primary. So there was sort of that ragtag, you know, we cameback.
When we left the townhouse, it all went to shit.
Well because in the general election, yeah, we moved to K Street. We had a big, big office building.
Nothing says change like K Street.
And every consultant in the Democratic Party was part of that campaign at some point. We had five pollsters, five strategist, five this, five. And it was. And they were all in headquarters. And people did not these are not people who were like with John Kerry from the very beginning. And not to say that they didn't have his best interests at heart, like all these people worked hard. But it was just, it didn't gel. It didn't you didn't feel the sense of mission that we all felt on the Obama campaign.
There was something about the Kerry campaign that was like everyone months before the end was like picking out their job in the administration, right? and that was like, not us, ever. Like, we were always just so mission focused. It was like, let's just get to you, you know, Election Day. And I think to that, like, just what Obama from the very beginning was like, I'm going to win this or lose this as me, right? And I'm not going to, this is how it's going to go down, and if you guys are cool with that, then we're all going to do it together. And also, just to say, like for everyone sitting around this table, I mean, if you assembled the same group of people, you wouldn't from the Kerry campaign, because it was not even remotely the family. I mean, we were really, really a family. And I think it did also have a lot to do with moving everyone to Chicago. One, Chicago was the most wonderful place to live. I think we were so lucky. But like we all made the same sacrifices, everybody was held to, even from even from the jump, everybody made the same salary. I mean, like it was there was something very egalitarian about the way Plouffe wanted to run it. And it made it like a really special thing. I mean, like I think of you guys all the time.
'Well, you mentioned, too. I left the Kerry campaign in mid-November of, what was it, 2003.
I won't ask you if you think he would have won if you had stayed.
It would be a very different podcast right now.
But I. Yeah, no doubt. But I remember in the in the thinking in the build up to this. I mean, I did not have a good experience in that campaign. And.
I remember, because when you came to the Obama campaign, you were sort of like shell shocked.
Yeah. And I didn't. And I, truthfully, I said I'm not.
It took him a while to buy into the family concept.
I was like, I did not want anything to do after that race, I did not want anything to do with a presidential campaign. And and then the convention speech happens, ironically, at the convention that nominates John Kerry for president, Obama gives the speech. You and I, you remember, we're on the floor. And I felt like. And I remember telling him this, like I said, I remember thanking him as we were walking around the FleetCenter. I said, you know, I never envisioned that I'd be at this convention and I never envisioned I'd feel as good as I do at this convention, and that's because of that speech. But I still wanted nothing to do with any of this going forward. And I told myself, I'm only working on one of these again, if I feel that connection, that family, and if I feel like I could have a conversation with a candidate and really tell him what I think and not bullshit him, because there's three other people that will say, Oh, no, no, no, that's wrong, and you're really, really good at this. And I love your point, Alyssa, that we were all. Everyone talks about a flat hierarchy. And to be clear, Plouffe was running the show. There's no mistake about that. But the group underneath that that led all these departments all felt like we were on the same line. Nobody felt more important than the rest. And everybody knew. Everybody had strengths, everybody had weaknesses. We complemented each other's strengths. We made up for any of the individual weaknesses. And and it really worked well together as a group in a way that there's.
There's no doubt about that, but, Reggie, I want to ask about one other aspect of it as a way of closing out this discussion, which I could continue for 10 hours.
How many episodes is this podcast?
But, Robert mentioned the event in Manassas after his grandmother had died, which was a really emotional event.
So Charlotte is when, Charlotte is the moment of real catharsis, right? So.
But we were, where were we standing in the rain? I thought that was in Virginia.
The last of it is in Virginia.
Yeah, but anyway but that's not the point. The point is this. There were 100,000 people. There were a 100,000 people there. So it isn't just internally what the campaign was like, and you have no basis for comparison, but you were at his side as at all of these big rallies and stuff. I mean, the feeling in the crowd was different. Talk about that, about sort of like the.
Yeah. So, I mean, look, I laugh about it, too, because I, I remember some of the places and stadiums that we went to and, you know, and I played college football and I'd, you'd see a 100,000 people show up to see 100 guys play football. But to then see 100,000 people show up to hear one guy for one hour or 30 minutes. It kind of like really puts it into perspective of, you know, what was happening at the moment.
Did you say, man, they never cheered for me like that.
Against me. Look, you were on this on this journey, Axe, and I think there are a bunch of times in Iowa where you'd show up at some town, take the big stadiums, you'd show up at some town that's got 15,000 people, and there'll be a 1,000 people to see Barack Obama. Now, you might have had a little jelly donut on your shirt and your clips going around.
A lot of jelly, though, let's be honest.
All right. Let's move on.
But but I think a lot of places that he went, he was people first, and I think people always felt that from him. And I think that that's like the kind of energy that he created. I don't know who came up with the idea when we started bringing in, like have these policy discussions with like real people at roundtables, and, you know, I think that those are the kind of things that like fired him up.
See, that was Axelrod's idea. They fired him up. They looked terrible on camera.
That's why I'm a podcast.
But no, I think those are the kind of moments that that really align with how Robert and Alyssa described the campaign, which like.
The reason I raised it, and this is where we should end, is at the end of those eight years, after extraordinary moments, the Affordable Care Act, you know, so many others, we got Donald Trump as as Alyssa mentioned, and.
And Favs, I mean, we had this discussion before about what hope means and and, you know, when we were together last night at this party, this campaign reunion, couple of thousand folks, every single one of them still idealistic, still out there doing stuff. But there is this sense right now that, you know, that's sort of a sepia toned memory. So you're a hopeful dude. Talk about that. And about how many speeches did you write about the concept of hope, and he certainly did in his speech in 2004. But how do we get from there to here? But more importantly, how do we get from here back to there?
Yeah, I mean, I think that I think sometimes it's easy to confuse hope and optimism. And optimism is predictive. It's imagining that, oh, maybe things are going to get better, or tell me things are going to get better. Tell me that the future is going to be better and I want to be optimistic about it. Hope is much different. Hope is. A friend of mine, Ady Barkan, who had lived with ALS, he's an activist, just passed away this week. And he would always say hope is not an emotion. Hope is an action. And to have hope is it's easy to have hope in the good times. What's much more difficult is is having hope when things aren't so great. And being hopeful is not just, again, it's not just a feeling, it's the idea that we actually have agency. That we can change, that we can make a difference. And that's what Obama's entire campaign was about. I mean, from the 2004 convention speech to the announcement speech, and I remember in the announcement speech, and he would say, you know, this campaign can't just be about me. It has to be about you and it has to be about what you can do to make this country better.
But he also talked in 2004 in that convention speech about what hope, about the audacity of hope, and what the audacity of hope meant was a faith and a belief in things you can't see, that aren't obvious, that aren't easily attainable. And hopefully the memory of those years, that campaign, that administration, reminds people that things that you can't see can happen if you work for them.
And you know, his favorite line from Martin Luther King Jr. that was. There you go. You guys can't see this, but Reggie and Gibbs are making hand motions, which I will now explain. So the quote, it was on the rug in the Oval Office, and it's, you know, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And what Obama would always add is it doesn't bend on its own. It bends because you put your two hands on that arc and you bend the arc. And that's what Gibbs and Reggie were just doing, they were bending the arc.
Well, let me let me just say, you guys are arc benders and it's been the gift of a lifetime to be part of this family. And that's why on this anniversary, I wanted to pull you guys together, in part because I just like being with you, but in part, I want to give people a sense of the journey that we took. And I'm just so grateful to all of you for making time to do it and for being my pals. So thank you.
Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Thank you for listening to The Axe Files, brought to you by the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Finder Annenberg. The show is also produced by Saralena Barry, Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN, including Steve Lickteig and Haley Thomas. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics dot u Chicago dot edu.