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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama's in-house political hand looks to save the Democrats

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,Darrell Issa,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,George W. Bush,David Simas,Magazine

It's rare when the creation of a new White House office generates more controversy than the person chosen to lead it.

But that's just what happened to David Simas when President Obama announced the reopening of the White House political office amid pressure to help Democrats in this fall's midterm elections.

Rep. Darrell Issa, who heads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, immediately launched an investigation into Obama's decision to re-establish the office and use taxpayer money to help Democrats' election efforts.

President George W. Bush had a similar office, and Issa noted that then-Sen. Obama was critical, labeling it “another arm of the Republican National Committee.”

But when asked what he thought of Simas' selection to run the shop, Issa was uncharacteristically reticent, saying only that he doesn't know him.

Issa and other Republicans might want to start boning up on Simas' background – and quickly.

One of the polling aces for Obama's 2012 re-election team, Simas was responsible for the precision ground game that even Republicans say far outpaced Mitt Romney's operation.

He was also one of the strategists behind the most brutal but effective move of the campaign - transforming Romney's reputed strength as a businessman with the executive chops to turn the economy around into the negative Image of a heartless Wall Street outsourcer.

Simas, 42, is a native of Massachusetts and graduated from Stonehill College and Boston College Law School. He served as deputy chief of staff for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick before David Axelrod, who has been a strategist for both Patrick and Obama, hired him away during Obama's first presidential campaign.

“David had a really good sense and grasp of Romney's history ... he was really instrumental in helping shape the research that drove our communications strategy and how we portrayed Romney,” said Larry Grisolano, a Democratic political strategist who served as Simas' boss on the 2012 campaign.

Others who worked alongside him on the campaign say Simas has an uncanny ability to review, synthesize and distribute data in a way that maximizes its value.

“It's really easy to be overwhelmed by data – but he was always able to organize it and most importantly deliver it to the campaign staff in a way that was accessible to people,” said Erik Smith, a senior adviser for advertising and message development on the Obama 2012 campaign.

Those who know Simas value his outside-the-Beltway experience.

“He's not a creature of Washington – he brought a middle-class sensibility to the job – that appealed to middle America and was not K Street,” Smith added.

Simas' parents immigrated from Portugal as children, and he has used their story to help sell Obama's push for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

In a video posted on the White House website, Simas says he remembers the lessons his mother, father and grandparents taught him “about citizenship, about giving to my community and about my responsibility as an American being much more than rights but being also about rights and responsibilities and paying it forward.”

Before Simas became a political operative, he had been a politician himself, serving on the city council and school board in his hometown of Taunton, Mass.

When John Kerry left his Senate seat to become secretary of state in early 2013, Simas was reportedly in talks with Massachusetts political operatives about running to replace him. But after moving his wife and two young daughters several times - from Massachusetts to Chicago and back to Washington - he says he's committed to staying in D.C. for a few more years.

During healthcare.gov's disastrous rollout, Obama leaned on Simas to stop the media hemorrhaging.

As the deputy senior adviser for communications and strategy, Simas showed up in the briefing room to help press secretary Jay Carney deflect questions from reporters. He also made the political talk show rounds.

As the media scrutiny intensified over the unworkable, glitch-filled website, Simas never veered from the administration talking points, at one point enduring a drubbing from CNN's Jake Tapper.

When Simas began an interview by blaming Obamacare's problematic rollout on the volume of users, Tapper refused to accept that line of argument.

“You're not still saying that it's just a volume question, right?” Tapper asked.

Simas will spend all year dealing with the health care fallout as he runs political interference for the president with vulnerable Democrats, many of whom are running scared and blame Obamacare's problems for the tough sledding they face in the midterms.

Many Democrats believe Obama has tapped the right man for the job.

Because of his extensive 2012 campaign research, Simas “really does understand how Americans are thinking and feeling,” said Kelly Ward, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“He will be perfect in this role,” Ward said.

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