Uber Hires Ex-Obama Campaign Strategist Plouffe To Be Its Lead Storyteller

With the taxi industry set up as “the incumbent candidate,” former Obama campaign architect and presidential adviser David Plouffe yesterday joined the four-year-old riding-sharing app company Uber as senior vice president of policy and strategy. Starting in late September, he will oversee all political activities, communications and branding efforts at the San Francisco-based start-up he asserted “has the chance to be a once-in-a-decade, if not a once-in-a generation company.”

But right now Uber “is tangling with lawmakers, state and local regulators and city taxi commissions in dozens of places — here and abroad — “where the legal status of fee-based ride-sharing is still unclear,” write Douglas MacMillan, Reid J. Epstein and Peter Nicholas in the Wall Street Journal.

“We want to step up our game in terms of how we tell our story,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a conference call with reporters, they report. “I like to think of David as a strategic thought partner and a brilliant general.”

“The familiar campaign buzz words in Plouffe’s first Uber conference call Tuesday were unavoidable: from ‘winning over the hearts and minds of consumers’ and referring to taxi companies as ‘incumbents’ to ‘war general,’” writes Krystal Peak in San Francisco Business Times. “He also asserted that he is ready to take on the ‘taxi cartel,’ his label for existing traditional transit companies.”

But Plouffe, 47, a native of Delaware and a graduate of its state university, avoided such standard jargon as “pivot,” “holistic strategy” or “breaking down silos” in what Peak calls a “conference call win.” 

Under a series of endorsements from titans of politics — as well as Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt — that has the feel of blurbs on a book jacket, Kalanick also introduced Plouffe in the company blog yesterday as “a proven field general and strategist who built the start-up that elected a President” before asking him to “share some of his thoughts.”

Plouffe alluded to the Obama campaigns himself, writing, “When you walk thru Uber’s HQ in San Francisco, the place is pulsating with young, brilliant and dedicated employees who believe they are part of doing something historic and meaningful and won’t take no for an answer. It’s a feeling I’ve been fortunate to experience previously and feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by that talent and energy one more time.”

“That the company has had a difficult time convincing regulators to support the company is no secret,” blogs the Washington Post’s Brian Fung before outlining battles it has been waging in Virginia and Illinois in particular. But, he points out, the company “has proven appealing to both sides of the political aisle” with “the Republican National Committee launching a petition this month to support Uber.” 

The ride-sharing app, which is now operative in more than 170 cities in 44 countries, has encountered stiff local resistance at many of the locales — legally, legislatively and in the streets. For example, “In June, thousands of taxi drivers in Europe tied up traffic as they protested Uber’s rise,” Mike Issac reports in the New York Times

But navigating resistance is part of the reality for companies that disrupt markets. Or, as critics charge Uber does, “puts the public at risk and operates often illegally,” Emily Badger and Zachary A. Goldfarb write in the Washington Post, pointing out that the company “has also hinted at broader ambitions in shaping the movement of people and packages around cities.”

“The hiring of a politically skilled executive has practically become a sign of adolescence for tech start-ups, marking the moment when they realize that navigating government can be as essential as maneuvering past competition,” the NYT’s Isaac writes, citing former congresswoman Susan Molinari at Google, former Clinton strategist Mark Penn at Microsoft, and former George W. Bush deputy chief of staff Joel Kaplan at Facebook, among others who have made similar moves.

Jim Messina, the manager of the 2012 Obama campaign, was the “matchmaker” for this six-months-in-the-making marriage, reports Politico’s Mike Allen. Messina was introduced to Kalanick by Google’s Schmidt, who said in his statement that “David is uniquely suited to scale and lead the same kind of insurgent campaign he did in 2008 for a Silicon Valley tech company, bridging the worlds of business and politics.”

“It’s the perfect marriage: You have the smartest strategist I have ever met, with one of the most innovative companies in America,” Messina told Allen. 

And then, in this corner, you have the entrenched interests of the way things have always been done, along with legions of cabbies who see their livelihoods threatened. The outcome could have broad implications for the future of the sharing economy. At any rate, it should be entertaining to watch.

At a Code conference in May, Kalanick minced no words in an on-stage interview with Re/code’s Kara Swisher. “We’re in a political campaign,” he said, “and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.”

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