Fineman: Obama's Talking Points

Here’s the private advice Sen. Barack Obama’s staff gave him the other day as he prepared to make a series of phone calls in search of support:

Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee is a “huge finance wonk,” and the way to win him over is by “giving Cooper a role in policy discussion.”

The route to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s heart is a spot on your “national leadership team” and a role as a “national surrogate” and adviser on education.

Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York is in play—the only Democratic in the New York delegation not to endorse Sen. Hillary Clinton—because Hillary’s “senior press aide worked on behalf of Clarke’s primary opponent” last year.

Federico Peña , Bill Clinton’s secretary of Transportation, “would be a good high-level Hispanic endorsement, especially considering the recent endorsements of both former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez for Senator Clinton. YOU should make a hard ask for his endorsement and offer him a position on the campaign’s national leadership.”

Got all that? Obama apparently did.

Old School Obama
On the campaign trail, he is the picture of casual cool: the tieless, open-necked embodiment of a new generation and style.

However, behind the scenes, he is as old-school methodical as they come, with an operation that is not as experienced as Clinton’s, but that has the focus and discipline to try to run with her. The results are serious, and thorough, though at times the scripted rigor borders on the comic.

That is the conclusion I draw from a fascinating piece of inside evidence that fell into my lap (or, more specifically, into my hotel room) the other day in Columbia, S.C.

The Democratic presidential contenders were in the state for their first debate, broadcast on MSNBC and streamed live on msnbc.com.

While I slept, an unidentified mischief-maker slipped under my door a copy of a document that is as inside baseball as it gets: 36 pages of lists and background briefings for the 17 phone calls Obama’s political staff wanted him to make that day.

A novice on the national scene, Obama needs research and detailed staff work to compensate for his lack of personal knowledge and contacts in the country.

Attention to Detail
The document shows him working the margins of the Clinton juggernaut, reaching out to leading African-American politicians not yet sewn up by Clinton, John Edwards or other campaigns.

They show a careful attention to detail—down to the names of the politicians’ children—and the call sheets leave space for the candidate (or his personal aide) to note whether the phone connection had been made. Many refer to Obama in the second person as YOU or YOUR—the capital letters meant to focus the reader on precisely what he should say.

The talking points at times are frank—though never disrespectful—in their assessment of those from whom Obama is seeking support, an endorsement or a chat.

Two of the names were what the campaign calls “faith calls”—a subset of the political shop’s work—aimed at influential ministers in the black community.

Of the 17 calls on the list, 12 were to blacks, two to Hispanics and three to whites.

The purpose of some of the calls was to line up support for a trip Obama will make to Missouri on May 11 and 12.

Another aim was to harvest supporters from among a crowd he had met in Atlanta in April. Other calls were aimed at those who had not committed elsewhere—especially to Hillary.

Representative Cooper, who is white and represents the Fifth District of Tennessee, is a moderate and the object of sustained effort.

Known for his concern about federal spending, Obama’s folks advised him to talk substance.

Getting the Endorsement
“Cooper is with YOU,” the talking points said, “he is just hesitant to go public with his endorsement. The KEY to this endorsement is giving Cooper a role in policy discussion. Cooper is a huge finance wonk … Assuring him access to the policy and legislative operation will give him enough incentive to overcome his hesitancy….”

Cooper needs some pressure, they advise. “YOU MUST make a HARD ASK for PUBLIC endorsement,” they said. “Cooper wants to get involved in your campaign, but needs YOUR push towards a public endorsement. All he wants is to work with policy, so if he feels he is being brought into that operation, he will endorse.”

Not everyone is a hard catch, according to the private advice Obama got. An eager fish is Rep. Russ Carnahan of the Third District of Missouri, one of the two other white politicians to whom Obama was reaching out late last week.

Carnahan is portrayed as enthusiastic, but perhaps a bit too desirous of a leadership campaign role in his state.

“Carnahan will ask you for a specific leadership role for YOUR campaign in Missouri,” the memo warns. “Assure him he will be one of YOUR leaders in the state, but DO NOT lead him to believe that it will be an exclusive role … DO NOT commit to anything specific.”

You have to wonder if Obama is a little too generous with his offers of top roles—for several of the call memos warn him about the same thing: don’t make commitments.

Two of the calls are to black ministers—an important political constituency for any Democrat, especially for an African-American whose ties to the community are, for some, an issue.

One of the ministers is Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, Pastor of the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, Calif.

This is relatively new territory to Obama, judging from the memo.

“Faith Central has more than 13,000 members and owns and meets at the Great Western Forum, the former home of the L.A. Lakers. He has a weekly broadcast on TBN that reaches millions of viewers.

“Bishop Ulmer is very interested in your candidacy,” the talking points continue. “His primary concern is that your campaign is about more than politics, and that you will be interested in a relationship with him whether or not you win.

“YOU will be in Los Angeles this Sunday but will not worship with Bishop Ulmer. You’ll be at first A.M.E. for a service commemorating the anniversary of the L.A. riots.”

Then the staff gave Obama a suggested script for his conversation with Ulmer:

“Bishop, it’s good to connect with you. I’ve been looking forward to speaking with you for a while. How’s everything going at the church? I’m looking forward to worshipping with you all very soon. Have you been following the campaign? How do think we’re doing so far?"

The suggested script continued, "Bishop, my campaign is about integrity—returning integrity to the political process, and treating people’s needs with integrity. I understand that’s the same approach you’ve taken in your ministry for a long time. I think we have a lot in common. Bishop, I’d be honored to have you on my team. I would like you advising me on the landscape in California and how to approach the religious community nationally. Can I count on your support and guidance?”

You get the idea. I’ll check back in a few weeks, especially after the event in St. Louis, with the box score on how many calls bore fruit.

YOU can read the piece and I hope YOU will enjoy it!

Join the Discussion