Can They Win, One Tweet at a Time?

To spread the Gospel of Barack, the White House doubles down on social media

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DOUG MILLS / NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX

Plouffe, second from left, is looking for new ways to pierce the media clutter

When Barack Obama traveled to Texas this month to talk immigration, David Plouffe, his top message guru, decided to stay home and watch Twitter instead. While Obama spoke, Plouffe sat before two flat-screen televisions in the White House complex. One showed live footage of Obama in El Paso. The other flickered with a lightning-quick vertical ticker tape of people tweeting with the #immigration hashtag, reacting line by line to the President in real time. "I find it useful," Plouffe says, "to see what's penetrating."

When Obama went off script to joke that Republicans would soon demand a border moat filled with alligators, a blur of Twitter messages showed people sending the quote to friends and followers, signaling a messaging victory of sorts. "It's kind of the next evolution," Plouffe explains. "Remember back in 2008, you'd have the presidential debate, and then most of the networks would have some sort of dial going up and down. That seems very Jurassic Park–like compared to this."

It is hard to imagine David Axelrod, who preceded Plouffe as senior adviser to the President, getting quite so excited about Twitter. Axelrod, a rumpled ex-hack, approached his task like a humanities professor, always retelling and refining the Obama narrative. Plouffe, who served as Obama's 2008 campaign manager, is an engineer, more interested in data, numbers and quantifiable metrics than in storytelling. He uses the word cume as a verb — meaning "to build up a cumulative audience" — and describes other people as "influence hubs."

From the moment he arrived in January, Plouffe changed the way the White House unfolds each morning. He demanded far more precision and repetition in the language used by the President and his surrogates. ("Win the future," ad nauseam.) He sought greater outreach to state and local media outlets. (West Wing aides now get news summaries from regional papers and local 6 o'clock news broadcasts, not just national publications.) And he doubled down on efforts by the White House to use social media to spread its message. (Plouffe, who turns 44 this month, also removed the clutter on Axelrod's desk; his desk is spit-shine clean.)

Plouffe points to the recent announcement of the Osama bin Laden raid. By the time Obama spoke, shortly after 11:35 p.m. E.T. on a Sunday, 56.5 million Americans had their televisions on to watch the speech — Obama's largest audience as President, according to Nielsen. An additional million-plus people watched the speech stream on WhiteHouse.gov. Word had traveled fast in two hours. "People were texting each other and tweeting and on Facebook and doing some old-fashioned landline calling, I'm sure," Plouffe says. "That's how the world works these days."

With the 2012 campaign approaching, Plouffe is looking for every opportunity to sharpen Obama's edge. He has leaned heavily on the 10-person department that handles digital outreach and launched efforts to interact with the public, including a series called Advise the Adviser, in which citizens are invited to write in policy recommendations. He has also issued calls for Americans to organize roundtables, using online White House tools, to discuss immigration policy. "There is no guarantee that you are going to get any of those people through any other means," he says, noting shrinking audiences for TV news.

Sometimes, Plouffe just creates his own news. For the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner, Plouffe's team created a fake movie trailer in the spirit of the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech, hoping it might go viral. The YouTube video of Obama's remarks has already been watched more than 8 million times, a bigger audience than that of most nightly network newscasts. "People saw that and said, 'I am going to share it with my family and friends,'" Plouffe says proudly. "You have to find ways to compound what you are doing."