Uber has recruited David Plouffe, the campaign strategist who helped Barack Obama win the White House in successive elections, to a new lobbying and communications role, as the driver-hailing service steps up its regulatory battle.
Mr Plouffe was an early mastermind of Mr Obama’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination and then election victory, and was brought back into the White House to help steer the 2012 re-election.
A sharp, pithy political adviser, he pioneered for Mr Obama the use of data for micro-targeting voters and marshalling their turnout to vote.
In a global role, Mr Plouffe will help Uber – an app that connects users directly with drivers – build its brand, step up its political clout and build on-the-ground support as it fights its corporate campaign against hostile regulators and incumbent taxi services.
As a Democrat, Mr Plouffe also brings connections to labour unions in the US, which in many cities have opposed the expansion of Uber in an effort to defend existing taxi drivers.
In an Uber blogpost announcing the high-profile hire, chief executive Travis Kalanick said that the fast-growing company had become “surprisingly controversial”, despite what he claimed were benefits to the economy through increased employment, and road safety by reducing drink-driving.
“We needed someone who understood politics but who also had the strategic horsepower to reinvent how a campaign should be run,” Mr Kalanick said.
Fuelled by a $1.2bn investment this summer, Uber has expanded to 170 cities around the world, up from 100 just this spring. But it continues to face a series of local, city-by-city regulatory scraps, including in Berlin in the past week.
It also faces competition from taxi-hailing start-ups around the world, including GetTaxi, which raised $100m this week, and Lyft, which recently launched in New York City after a legal row.
“Over the years, what I’ve come to realise is that this controversy exists because we are in the middle of a political campaign and it turns out the candidate is Uber,” Mr Kalanick said. “Our opponent – the Big Taxi cartel – has used decades of political contributions and influence to restrict competition, reduce choice for consumers, and put a stranglehold on economic opportunity for its drivers.”
I look forward to doing what I can right now to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation due to those who want to maintain a monopoly
Mr Plouffe said he joined Uber because he believed its team were “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.”
After the 2008 campaign, Mr Plouffe worked as an adviser to companies including Boeing. He briefly returned to the White House as an adviser in 2011.
Since 2012, Mr Plouffe has worked as a commentator for Bloomberg TV and ABC, and also given paid speeches – including, controversially, along with other former White House aides, in Azerbaijan.
“I look forward to doing what I can right now to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation due to those who want to maintain a monopoly and play the inside game to deny opportunity to those on the outside,” Mr Plouffe said.
Uber’s new hire came as its chief US rival Lyft saw the departure of its chief operating officer, Travis VanderZanden. Mr VanderZanden, who was previously an executive at collaboration service Yammer, joined Lyft last year when it acquired Cherry, an on-demand car washing service he founded.
In a tweet, Mr VanderZanden said he was “excited to have worked with the Lyft team, but myself and the entire Cherry/Yammer team resigned last week to pursue other opportunities”. A report at tech news site Recode suggested that his departure followed a falling-out with Lyft’s other executives.
A Lyft spokesperson said: “We’ve talked about the future and all agree that Travis will move on as we move forward into the company’s next chapter of growth. We appreciate everything he’s done here, and wish him the best in his next adventure.”