Dan Pfeiffer was the man with a plan

Dan Pfeiffer’s fingerprints are all over the White House’s strategy of not negotiating with congressional Republicans over the government shutdown and debt ceiling.

The senior adviser to President Obama has been plotting the White House’s every move, and is described by some within the administration as the “relentless guardian” of Obama’s no-negotiations stance.

ADVERTISEMENT
“He’s been the most ferocious on that principle,” one senior administration official said. “He was quite adamant and relentless about this. And on the face of it, it’s not an easy argument to make.”

Even before the shutdown began on Oct. 1, Republicans had turned their fire on Obama, criticizing him for not negotiating.

But a string of recent national polls on the budget battle show Republicans have taken the worst of the public opinion backlash by far.

A Gallup survey registered the GOP’s lowest approval rating ever in the poll’s history, while a few polls during the fight have actually showed Obama’s approval ratings climbing, largely because of support from within his own party.

White House officials argue the polls underline the success of their messaging.

The White House began planning its messaging strategy for the fiscal fights in the summer, with weekly meetings to discuss the looming crisis, senior administration officials say.

White House officials and those close to Obama credit much of their strategy and messaging discipline to the 37-year-old Pfeiffer, who has taken a greater role with the absence of Obama advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe. 

They say he worked closely with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to ensure the West Wing was disciplined in the execution of the strategy and policy process. Pfeiffer also played an instrumental role in ensuring that Obama “talk directly to the people,” one senior administration said, in a series of interviews with local network affiliates around the country, as the president did on Tuesday. 

Other key players included deputy chiefs of staff Rob Nabors and Alyssa Mastromonaco.

“Dan is very consistent and structured in the way he thinks,” Nabors said, recalling the brainstorming sessions he’s had with Pfeiffer. He compared them to the discussions “you would see in a West Wing episode.” 

“His mind is an organized mind,” Nabors added. “He can look at something, go away overnight and come back and say ‘this is what I think we should do.’ ”

Questions had been raised about whether Pfeiffer could fill the shoes of Plouffe, his predecessor and mentor, who helped catapult Obama to the White House twice.

One former senior administration official said those questions were underlined when Plouffe’s job was divided between Pfeiffer, Nabors, McDonough, senior adviser David Simas and other senior officials.

“There was this sense that he was in over his head,” the former official said. “He was no Plouffe.”

Pfeiffer has had his share of stumbles, and was blamed by some for the lackluster rollout of the healthcare reform law.

More doubts emerged when Pfeiffer went on a string of Sunday shows in May and “tanked,” in the words of one strategist.

Adding insult to injury, on one of the programs, Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” called into question Pfeiffer’s experience. “Why are you here today? Why isn’t the White House chief of staff here to tell us what happened?”

Observers wondered if he was dabbling in tasks way beneath his pay grade when he inadvertently landed in hot water last week for mistakenly tweeting out the N word.

“Plouffe would have never put himself in that situation,” a Democrat close to the White House said. “It would have been too nitty gritty for him.”

Pfeiffer’s West Wing colleagues say the criticism is unfair, and that the West Wing’s success in the shutdown fight will boost perceptions of Pfeiffer. “There’s a perception on the outside that there’s a B Team here,” Nabors said. “But the reality is Dan is an incredibly talented guy ... he’s a living legend.”

Plouffe also defended his protégé in an interview.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said of criticism of Pfeiffer.

“[Dan] is someone in his own right who has played a role in President Obama’s successes. His judgment and strategic sense is deeply respected and it was when Axelrod was there and when I was there,” he said.

Pfeiffer even dealt with a health scare while planning the shutdown strategy in September when he was hospitalized twice with stroke-like symptoms.

White House officials and allies contend that it was Pfeiffer who applied lessons learned from the 2011 debt ceiling and the “fiscal cliff” battles.

More than anything, “He learned that you have to know where the red lines are,” Plouffe said. 

“You need to be able to look through the rear view mirror a little but also look through the front shield window, and Dan is very good at that. He’s very good at playing things out and thinking where we’ll be two weeks from now and four weeks from now.”

Pfeiffer was aware, senior officials said, that Obama’s hard-line, no-negotiating approach could lead to a possible shutdown and he was “willing to be the only guy in the room who was arguing for that,” as one official said. 

“A lot of people thought it was unsustainable,” the senior official said. “But, it appears we’re trending in a good way.”

More in Administration

Longtime Obama aide stepping down

Read more »