President Obama’s top political operatives — including campaign chief adviser David Axelrod — traveled from Chicago and Washington to the headquarters of the William Jefferson Clinton foundation in Harlem last Wednesday afternoon for a meeting with the former president and two of his top aides. The topic? How to re-elect the current president — including some very specific advice from Clinton, according to sources present.
The Nov. 9 meeting, which went on for more than two hours, also included Clinton counselor Douglas Band and Justin Cooper, a senior adviser whose multiple responsibilities have included work on the former president’s memoir and last two books. Their guests were former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, who is serving as Obama’s 2012 campaign manager; Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee who until recently oversaw political affairs in the White House; and Obama’s lead pollster Joel Benenson, who played the same role in the 2008 campaign.
“We were the ones who reached out for the conversation,” said one of the participants from the Obama campaign, who confirmed the details. “We did so to lay out the landscape for the [former] president as we see it, but our particular interest was to receive his insights, and we were fortunate enough to benefit from them.” The same source said that they hope and expect to engage regularly with Clinton.
As the meeting began, the Obama aides laid out their sense of the political landscape, their polling data on attitudes among voters in the Democratic base and independents who might be truly undecided, the shaping of their message and their campaign’s organizational structure across the country. They also frankly discussed findings from voter focus groups that the campaign has conducted in recent months. Much of the presentation dealt with battleground states such as North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, and Arizona, where Obama prevailed four years ago but faces more difficult odds next year.
Having absorbed all this information, Clinton peppered the Obama operatives with dozens of probing questions and specific suggestions, not only concerning their strategy and message but how to handle the leading Republican candidates, too. Economic conditions and how to address them dominated the discussion. What most interested the Obama team were Clinton’s insights on heartland voting blocs that remain in the political middle: not the Republican-leaning independents who always end up voting for the GOP nominee, but the truly uncommitted who largely ended up supporting Obama in 2008.
While Axelrod arrived with no particular “ask” beyond Clinton’s advice, the meeting ended with the Obama group telling the former president something he may already have surmised: They want him actively involved in the re-election campaign and expect to engage him regularly in the months ahead.