In April 2012, the Obama re-election campaign posted a photo of a staff meeting on its Tumblr account. The aides in the picture were young, casually dressed, and enthusiastic — and nearly all white. The campaign took heat on the Internet for a remarkable lack of diversity, particularly since the staff was working to re-elect the first black president in U.S. history.
Now, a new book filled with inside information from the campaign reports that top Obama aides were also taking heat from key donors and supporters. In The Message: The Reselling of President Obama, author Richard Wolffe writes that influential black supporters were unhappy with the lack of black aides in top campaign roles. The supporters were so unhappy that they forced the campaign to search for African-Americans to fill senior roles in the effort. After months of searching, the campaign found exactly one.
"Inside the campaign to re-elect the country's first black president, there was an embarrassingly low number of African-Americans in the senior ranks," Wolffe writes.
Prominent and wealthy black donors told Obama's aides, as well as his operatives in Chicago, that they would not take part unless and until there was African-American representation in headquarters. [Campaign manager] Jim Messina embarked on an intensive search to fill the hole, asking [White House aide] Valerie Jarrett for her advice on the role she herself played in 2008. There were few candidates who were prepared to give up a year's worth of salary, and unwind their outside work, to commit to the campaign full-time. It took several months before Messina could recruit just one figure to the innermost circle of leadership: Broderick Johnson, a former lobbyist and personal friend of the president, who visited Chicago weekly.
The lack of black staffers, both in senior and lower-down roles, proved embarrassing for the campaign, Wolffe writes. For example, with no blacks to supervise ads targeting African-American audiences, the results could be remarkably off-key. When the campaign produced its first black radio ad, one aide recalled to Wolffe, "It was like something out of Soul Train from the 1970s." With funk music behind it, the ad played sound bites from Obama speeches followed by a chorus singing "We've got yo' back!"
"It was so bad," the aide told Wolffe. "The worst was that it started out with the president saying, 'I'm Barack Obama and I approved this message." In fact, Obama had not approved the message, nor was there an African-American in a senior campaign position who might evaluate it. In the end, the embarrassment was the price Obama paid for a campaign that never lived up to his own standards of diversity.