A Tour of the Self-Contained, Design-Happy City of Obamaland

Obama doesn't just denounce outsourcing on the stump. His campaign HQ is a living test of the theory that everything can be done best in-house.

Nancy Scola

CHICAGO -- Out on the campaign trail, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are at the moment engaged a spirited rhetorical debate over what it means to be an "outsourcing pioneer," a phrase borrowed from the Washington Post's coverage of Romney's Bain Capital past. For the most part, it's been discussion waged in generalities. But a tour of Obama's headquarters half-seriously suggests that the president might just want to point to his own campaign as a demonstration of doing things in-house. The scene on this floor of downtown's One Prudential Plaza is of waves of hundreds of staffers working amid a sea of college banners, rubber therapeutic balls, cardboard boxes turned into standing desks, and a visitor is struck by how much their five-year-old political operation has come to believe in rolling its own creative work.

It's as if, should the Obama campaign end tomorrow, you'd have the minds, skill sets, and tools ready to power a decent-sized tech company. Maybe even a small sovereign nation.

According to the story floating around, campaign manager Jim Messina took a year to tap the brains of tech world luminaries like Apple's Steve Jobs and Google's Eric Schmidt and came away with a few new ideas about how to run an organization. One was the belief in the "pod." Rather than distribute staffers in offices according to job function, this time around much of the Obama campaign is organized around five regional clusters. A few senior staffers have offices -- national field director Jeremy Bird and battleground states director Mitch Stewart pore over maps in one, Teddy Goff and Joe Rospars plot digital strategy in another -- but in a switch from 2008, staffers generally sit in an large open room, at long tables arranged in row after row. In one corner of the open space are a few of your more traditional political teams. The policy shop is smaller than last time, befitting a situation where much of that agenda is set by Washington. The surrogate team is bigger. It makes sense: the campaign principals, and the president and vice president in particular, have fairly demanding day jobs.

That's all well and good, but what particularly jumps out is the way in which the Obama campaign has focused on setting up the sort of creative operations that weren't in the past traditionally associated with a political campaign. It's a lesson, perhaps, that Messina took to heart from the experiences of Jobs and Apple: Keep the means of production close, and the ability to iterate at the ready.

What does that look like in practice? At Obama campaign headquarters, it means dozens and dozens of staffers with expertise in the digital space grouped into dedicated teams, with the ability and responsibility to tackle meaty challenges in their particular space. In one back corner is the Technology team, charged with building out a robust infrastructure for making the campaign run, like the Dashboard software that aims to bridge online and offline organizing. But the Tech team is not to be confused with the Digital Development team, which, as the campaign tells it, handles the dreaming up of new ways to use digital tools. Digital Advertising gets its own row close to the team that produces the campaign's wide-ranging online video work, from national ads to targeted training videos. (Almost all of the campaign's video is produced in-house, though Davis Guggenheim's 17-minute docu-advertisment was a high-profile exception.) Then there's the team known simply as Outbound. That group of staffers is responsible for writing the words that come out of the campaign in electronic form, from emails to texts to tweets to Facebook posts to Pinterest pins to Instagram captions. Outbound didn't exist in any cohesive way in 2008, says the campaign. There's simply a far larger universe of digital content to be filled this time around, and tasking a single team with managing the campaign's voice is a bid to create consistency across online platforms.

Down the hall and off the main room sits the Design team. Obama campaign HQ is demonstrably a place where the creatively inclined are allowed to let their design flag fly.

And tucked off a back hallway is the lab they need to do it. It might not be Jony Ive's cave of experimentation at Apple headquarters, but after too much time and money spent working with outside print shops last time around, the campaign decided to set up its own production facility on site. They call it the "Chop Shop;" its logo, as you can see below, is a pair of X-acto knives crossed over an Obama rising sun logo. The facility gives the campaign's creatives the ability to dream up and quickly produce the materials that provide the look and feel of the campaign.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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