All Tech Considered
10:56 am
Sat August 23, 2014

Uber Greases The Wheel With Obama's Old Campaign Manager

Originally published on Sat August 23, 2014 11:48 am

President Obama's former campaign manager has gone to work for Uber. The ride-sharing start-up based in San Francisco has hired David Plouffe in hope that the political strategist who helped elect a president can steer the company through a thicket of local regulatory disputes.

This new power couple raises some questions:

Why does Uber need one of the best political strategists in the country?

First off, they can afford him. The company is valued at $18 billion. NPR tried to find out what Plouffe is getting paid, but Uber won't say.

They need the muscle, though. CEO Travis Kalanick is spinning this as one epic campaign of Silicon Valley innovation against the "big taxi cartel." Cabbies say that Uber is just a smartphone-enabled taxi and should be subject to all the same rules as they are. That level of regulation would really hurt Uber's business.

Take the question of how to insure part-time drivers, for instance. Uber's taken out a million-dollar insurance policy, but it's very limited. Some insurance companies have said they won't cover a car that's being used for commercial ride sharing. The rules are all over the map.

Plouffe could help Uber come up with a federal strategy to address regulatory attempts, so the company could lobby more efficiently than the current city-by-city campaigns. Kalanick talked about that at an Atlantic Live forum last November.

"I'm trying to find some angle where I can just say all this corrupt stuff just comes down to the federal thing," he said. Perhaps Plouffe can help get the Federal Trade Commission to intervene.

How might Plouffe campaign for Uber?

Uber won't get into the details, but presumably Plouffe is going to lead a big marketing push. That's what both of them hinted at when they appeared together on Bloomberg TV this week to talk about the partnership. Kalanick says he wants "to tell a story in the cities that we're going to."

Obama's 2008 campaign was a social media home run well before the app ecosystem on smartphones took off — remember all the homegrown sites and personal testimony.

We might see a MyUber app and stories about dads and moms able to pay the bills. Kalanick likes to tell a story about a dad who built an entire fleet — not just one cab on the Uber app — and he's paying for his daughter to go to Stanford.

Is this part of that revolving door between Silicon Valley and Washington D.C.?

Yes. It's a high profile example of a pretty consistent trend. The former mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty, came to Silicon Valley to be a special advisor to a leading venture capital firm. Facebook has hired former Hill staffers. The cybersecurity start-ups in Silicon Valley are full of former Pentagon and NSA employees.

One unique thing about this partnership is that both parties are exceptionally good at spin. That's not always the case; Facebook is really struggling with how to frame its work as not creepy or manipulative, for example.

Uber sticks to a talking point that it's fighting for big principles like 'economic freedom.' Some people in Silicon Valley mock that a bit, saying the company is also just trying to get around driver safety regulations.

As Obama's campaign manager, Plouffe was the guy who told Politico about how rival John Edwards spent $400 on a haircut. That story came to define Edwards' unsuccessful campaign, and showcased Plouffe's savvy for opposition research. The taxi versus Uber narrative probably has lots of room for vivid, unflattering stories, too.

What's Uber's master plan?

Uber plainly wants to be more than a car service. Just this week they started delivery service in D.C., experimenting with the transportation of goods as well as people. The so-called "Uber Corner Store" is a move into on-demand delivery services.

Also remember that Uber's money comes from Google Ventures. Google is in search of "moonshots," so maybe we'll see Uber fully integrate with Google Maps to connect people going in the same direction in a new, paid car-pooling service. That wouldn't just disrupt the taxi industry; it could affect buses and trains, too.

Uber has also partnered with AT&T to embed the Uber app into smartphones and just opened its API to developers who want to find interesting new ways to embed Uber's services in other platforms.

As for Plouffe, he's a political operative who loves technology. Right now, there are a bunch of tech start-ups making get-out-the-vote apps. Maybe Plouffe will do his stint at Uber, milk all the amazing Silicon Valley contacts and bounce to his own start-up.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama's former campaign manager has gone to work for Uber - but don't expect to get him on your app. The ride-sharing startup service, based in San Francisco, has hired David Plouffe in the hope that the strategist who helped elect the president can steer Uber through a thicket of local regulatory disputes and set a course for future development.

We're joined now from San Francisco by NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks very much for being with us.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: So why does Uber need one of the - well, one of the obviously best and best paid political strategists in the country?

SHAHANI: Well, first off, they can afford him, right? Full time. I tried to find out exactly what Plouffe is getting paid. Uber won't say, but the company is valued at something like $18 billion. And in terms of why they need so much muscle, Uber is taking on the taxi industry, for one. Cabbies are saying that Uber is just a smartphone-enabled taxi and should be subject to all the same roles they are. And that level of regulation would really hurt Uber's business. Then, there's the whole part about insuring part-time drivers. Uber has a million-dollar insurance policy, but it's still very limited as to when it kicks in.

SIMON: So what is David Plouffe's job on day one, would you guess?

SHAHANI: Well, there are a lot of campaigns to be fought. Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick is spinning this one as an epic campaign of Silicon Valley innovation against the big taxi cartel - those are his words, not mine. Uber won't get into the details but presumably, Plouffe is going to lead a big marketing push and the both of them appeared this week on Bloomberg TV to talk about the partnership.

SIMON: Let's play a piece of that. This is Travis Kalanick talking about what David Plouffe's going to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STREET SMART")

TRAVIS KALANICK: You know, it's about communications, policy, branding and strategy - and weaving that together to tell a story in the cities that we're going to do; about how safe the rides are, about the tens of thousands of jobs we're creating every month and making sure cities understand the progress that Uber represents.

SIMON: Tell a story - now that's become a very political phrase, like, we have to establish a narrative for this campaign.

SHAHANI: Oh, yeah, a very strong one. And mind you, Obama's 2008 campaign was a social media home run. And that was well before the app ecosystem and smartphones took off. And so you know, you'll recall in Obama's campaign there were homegrown sites and My Personal Obama Testimony.

So now we might see a My Uber Stories take off, with, you know, dads and moms talking about how they can pay the bills. So presumably, bringing on Plouffe is in part an effort to push out the stories that show, hey, Uber is good for the public.

SIMON: I doubt Uber is valued at $18 billion just because it wants to schlep people from point A to point B. They just started deliveries on demand in Washington, D.C., in fact, and a lot of people wonder if they're not trying to position themselves to be the next Amazon; deliver anything, anywhere.

SHAHANI: You know, Uber is experimenting with the transportation of people and goods - and some very kitschy transportation too; I mean, they did Valentine's Day roses and this weird, get-a-kitten-for-an-hour kind of thing. And it could be that they really expand their wings, their fleet, you know - not to mix metaphors - in the transportation of people and goods. It could be that they go in another direction. They are backed by Google Ventures. They just made a huge partnership with AT&T so they're clearly looking for partnerships and integration and penetration. And also, Google is about moon shots right? So it's possible that they move beyond transportation itself into other kinds of goods and services.

Now, besides Uber's business model, I'm really curious to see if Plouffe comes up with his own product line or startup. You know, he is a political operative who loves technology, and he used the Internet to win the 2008 campaign for Obama. And frankly, right now, there's a bunch of tech startups that are making Get Out The Vote apps and marketing to candidates in both parties. So we might see Plouffe do his stint at Uber, milk all the amazing Silicon Valley contacts and bounce to his own startup.

SIMON: Aarti Shahani, NPR Technology correspondent. Thanks so much.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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