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White House to begin shifting operations for 2012 to Chicago

By Jeff Zeleny

New York Times


WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama will close the office of political affairs at the White House in preparation for the establishment of his re-election headquarters, which will open its doors in Chicago by late March to concentrate on building a national fundraising and grassroots operation to rival his first campaign, aides said.

The president has signed off on the plan to set up his campaign headquarters away from Washington, a first for a modern-day presidential re-election campaign. To avoid turf battles, chaotic communications and duplicated efforts, aides said, a significant realignment is under way in the West Wing, with the duties of the political office being taken up by the Democratic National Committee.

Obama intends to make a formal declaration of his candidacy in about two months by filing papers with the Federal Election Commission, aides said. That step would allow him to raise money and hire a team of advisers, whose goal is to make Obama follow Bill Clinton as the second Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be elected twice.

While the president's approval rating has inched to about 50 percent in several polls this week, he faces many challenges. Raising money is the most critical step, aides said, followed by firing up a state-by-state network of supporters — particularly independent voters — who are key to the race.

As potential Republican opponents begin searching for support in early-voting states, the president is not expected to begin day-to-day campaign activity or to attend fundraisers until late spring or summer. But Obama has settled on the leadership for his re-election effort, with the top three officials being elevated from his 2008 campaign.

Jim Messina, a deputy White House chief of staff who has overseen operations in the West Wing and acted as a troubleshooter, will manage the campaign. Messina has started a search for office space in downtown Chicago, spoken with major fundraisers this week and begun trying to win over any top supporters who have grown disillusioned with Obama.

"He will be the president of the United States," Messina said, "and we'll be building this grassroots campaign, waiting to get an opponent and doing things you've got to do."

In addition to Messina, aides said, the re-election campaign deputies will be White House social secretary Julianna Smoot, who was the finance director of the 2008 campaign, and Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, who directed the 2008 battleground-state operation. Patrick Gaspard, the White House political director, will take over the day-to-day duties of running the Democratic National Committee, with Tim Kaine, the former Virginia governor, still serving as general chairman.

The elimination of the political affairs office at the White House coincides with the arrival of David Plouffe, who managed the president's 2008 campaign and began working in the West Wing this month as a senior adviser.

Closing the office will hardly remove politics from the West Wing, considering that the political arena is central to Plouffe's portfolio. But aides said that by moving the political director and his staff to the Democratic National Committee, the restructuring of the president's political operation could reduce the likelihood that it will become a target of an investigation by the Republican-led House Oversight Committee.

The personnel moves, confirmed ininterviews this week, represent the latest step in a major reorganization of the Obama administration. The accelerated pace of the re-election bid, particularly with no sign of any Democratic primary opponent, highlights the challenges facing Obama, who can no longer present himself as a Washington outsider. The headquarters in Chicago is intended to help connect him with Americans across the country at a time when he is also fighting Republican efforts to portray him as too liberal for the electorate.

While it may seem early to begin planning for an election that is 22 months away, the timeline for Obama is only slightly earlier than those of his two recent predecessors. Clinton filed his re-election papers on April 14, 1995, and George W. Bush formally opened his campaign on May 16, 2003. Neither president closed their political office at the White House.

The president and his aides have been discussing the placement of the re-election headquarters in Chicago for several months. But the plan came under review again in the last two weeks when William M. Daley was hired as the White House chief of staff. He signed off on the decision, aides said, along with closing the White House's political affairs office.

Plouffe will be the main liaison between the White House and the campaign team. He said that he has studied the re-election efforts of Clinton and Bush, among other presidents, and dismissed criticism from many Democrats that a Chicago headquarters and the White House could not work together.

"There's not going to be two dueling power centers," Plouffe said in an interview. "The philosophy of this campaign will not be that the White House is somehow running the campaign. The people running the campaign are in charge of the campaign. That's the way the president wants it. We'll do it in a coordinated way, but they're running this thing."

Messina will oversee the Chicago office, filling the role that Plouffe had when Obama first announced his candidacy four years ago. Messina will be joined by Smoot, who will oversee the fundraising operation and a broad portfolio of projects. Dillon will oversee the political and field operations.

Organizing for America, the network of Obama supporters that grew out of the campaign, is expected to provide the spine of a volunteer network, but advisers conceded that it must be strengthened over the next two years to prepare for as many as 20 battleground states.

"It's a huge advantage having the campaign in Chicago," Messina said. "What we're going to do day in and day out is focus on building this campaign from the grass roots up. You will see us do it every single day in ways you can feel and ways you can't, but that is our absolute charge."

One of the first orders of business for the reorganized political team will be announcing the location of the 2012 Democratic convention. Word could come as soon as next week. St. Louis and Charlotte are believed to be leading contenders, Democrats familiar with the process said, while Cleveland and Minneapolis are said to remain in the running.

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