Team Obama wanted to replace Super PAC head Bill Burton with...Robert Gibbs

Oh, imagine the cancer ads Press Secretary Peter Griffin could have produced!

“Obama’s Last Stand,” an e-book by Politico’s Glenn Thrush released this week, documents the transition of Team Hope and Change to the dispiriting campaign it has become, starting from the time the president realized in 2011 he couldn’t run on his record.

In it we find the president concerned about the damage an allied Super PAC could do to his above-the-fray brand and underestimating the damage opposing Super PACs could do to his reelection hopes. After using his 2011 State of the Union address to hammer the Supreme Court, to their faces, for “reversing a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests— including foreign companies— to spend without limit in our elections,” pivoting to Super PAC support was not on Obama’s to-do list, though Rahm Emanuel and campaign manager Jim Messina pushed him.

“The appeal went nowhere. Obama had no time for super PACs, a political weapon that was to pose a mortal threat to him a year later,” Thrush writes. “‘Stop talking to me about this…I’m not going there,’ he told one exasperated adviser around that time.”

A year later, Team Obama refuses to repudiate a Super PAC ad that accuses his opponent of being responsible for one woman’s cancer death and his own campaign has used the term “felon” to attack Romney. I didn’t expect anything less from the man who famously and conveniently decided to withdraw from the federal matching-funds program despite his former vocal and principled support for it. But how’d we get here?

When Obama failed to endorse or funnel talent to a Super PAC effort, someone filled the gap. That person was Bill Burton, former deputy press secretary at the White House. Burton had been passed over for the press secretary gig when that dimly lit torch passed from Robert Gibbs to Jay Carney. Maybe Obamaland’s estimation of him had something to do with that:

(The formation of Priorities USA) took many in Obama’s campaign completely by surprise. “That’s our super PAC?” one top Obama aide asked. “Oh, God. We’re fucked.”

Ouch. Big donors who had actually believed in Obama’s high-minded stand against Super PACs balked at the notion of donating to Burton and Co.

“Is this what we’ve become?” was the dismayed response from a big-money donor approached as the PAC tried to get off the ground, according to Thrush’s reporting.

Thrush’s account notes Obama’s team started discussing the idea of replacing Priorities leadership, to close the gap between Republican and Democratic PACs. It’s unclear how they would have managed this coup without violating laws against coordination, but here was their brainstorm:

Quietly, without the knowledge of Burton or Sweeney, they contemplated the possibility of replacing the Priorities leadership with big players— and briefly entertained the idea of supporting any new entity that showed more promise, people in Obama’s orbit told me.

The name at the center of these discussions was Robert Gibbs. He was it was thought the one operative who had both a big enough reputation to attract billionaires and the political ESP to intuit what Chicago wanted him to do without breaching anti-coordination rules.

It wasn’t to be. Gibbs had already been working closely with Chicage and was being looped into strategy sessions with Obama himself. That raised red flags for Bob Bauer, who viewed his main task as avoiding a potentially damaging breach of federal election laws.

Gibbs is not renowned for his soft touch, so I’m unconvinced he would have taken a different, smarter tone than Burton’s; he just would have raked in more money to do it. Make no mistake: Obama stopped being concerned about running a positive campaign the second he realized a positive campaign was not the path to victory.

In interview with two dozen current and former Obama advisers, not one said he expressed reservations—at least in the beginning—about the “kill Romney” strategy, and he personally signed off on all of his campaign’s paid advertising, although he often toned down the harshest attacks.

But Obama desperately wanted to win, and the pivot to negativity was, people close to the president told me, not an especially agonizing one. In fact, the change was hardly discussed at all. Obama simply felt he had no choice.

Axelrod even blew up the notion of Obama ’08 as a positive endeavor, telling Thrush, it was a “‘bullshit notion’ that Obama ran a strictly positive campaign the first time around…Just ask Hillary Clinton and John McCain if they agree that Obama played patty-cake, he said.”

It’s gratifying to hear Obama’s closest Chicago adviser admit this, but he goes onto complain “the difference now is that the pundit class is holding the president to a phony, Catch-22 standard.” No, the difference is they’re being held to any standard this time around.

The whole Thrush book is a fun, quick read revealing all kinds of tidbits of the internal slapfight behind No Drama Obama this time around. It’s nice that the e-book format incentivizes this kind of reporting during the campaign instead of holding back a bunch of juicy stuff for your book-turned-HBO-special after the election.