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Uber hires former Obama strategist David Plouffe

Former Obama advisor David Plouffe.

Chris Usher/CBS News/Getty Images/file

Former Obama advisor David Plouffe.

Uber wants your vote of support. And it has hired a campaign manager to win you over.

Uber, the fast-growing private car startup, announced Tuesday it had hired political strategist David Plouffe to be its senior vice president of policy and strategy. The move further signaled the grand aspirations of companies like Uber, which are challenging entrenched industries and running into resistance from some local governments.

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Plouffe, who ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the White House, said he planned to run Uber’s communication efforts much like a political race — pushing to woo consumers and regulators alike in the company’s fast-paced expansion across the world.

Uber, which allows consumers to summon private rides via a smartphone app, now operates in more than 170 cities globally, the company said. But it has tussled with regulators in the United States and overseas in its race to gain traction in new cities. The legality of the service was questioned in 2012 when it entered New York City. In June, thousands of taxi drivers in Europe tied up traffic as they protested Uber’s rise.

In recent months, as it has continued to face resistance in new markets, the company has made no secret of its desire to find someone who can create and execute a strategy to win over consumers.

“We’re on an inexorable path of progress here,” Plouffe said in an interview. “Uber is making transportation safer. It’s providing jobs; it’s cutting down on drunk and distracted driving. I think the mission is really important.”

The hiring of a politically skilled executive has practically become a sign of adolescence for tech startups, marking the moment when they realize that navigating government can be as essential as maneuvering past competition.

Uber had already hired Ashwini Chhabra, a former top official at the Taxi and Limousine Commission in New York, as its first leader of policy development and community engagement. Airbnb, the home-sharing startup that has often clashed with regulators, hired David Hantman, a former vice president of public policy at Yahoo, to be its head of global public policy.

More established tech companies have also increased their government-relations teams in recent years. Google, for example, has built a big lobbying presence in Washington, hiring Susan Molinari, a former member of Congress, to be its head lobbyist.

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard, said companies have realized how high the stakes are and were hiring accordingly.

“A tweet-length change to a law could spell the difference between success and failure of an entire new sector,” he said.

Plouffe, who Uber described as its official “campaign manager” in a blog post, will be responsible for the company’s policy efforts, branding decisions and overall strategy and communications.

“As more of a techie and entrepreneur, it’s new territory to understand how politics works and how campaigns are run,” Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber, said in an interview. “We needed somebody on the policy and strategy side who is also a kindred spirit as a data geek.”

A pioneer in the art of using technology and multiple sources of data to target messages to voters, Plouffe has deep and longstanding ties to Obama; he managed his 2008 campaign and served in his White House from 2011 until early 2013. Even from outside the West Wing, Plouffe has remained one of Obama’s closest confidants, dispensing advice on a wide range of issues.

Plouffe also has experience in the private sector. After the 2008 campaign, he advised companies including Boeing and General Electric and gave paid speeches to groups and companies around the globe.

He was summoned back to the White House in 2011 to serve as Obama’s chief political adviser as the president retooled to face a divided Congress and geared up for his re-election bid. Since leaving the administration last year, Plouffe has served as a commentator on Bloomberg TV and ABC News.

Plouffe plans to use at least some of his campaign experience in his new position at Uber.

“This is a company that loves data and utilizes it, which is something that I’ve utilized a lot,” he said. “If we can use data in smart and appropriate ways to tell our story better, people are more likely to use Uber for transportation.”

Kalanick said Uber also needed Plouffe to compete against the strong taxi lobby and to make sure it faced fewer roadblocks in the new cities it entered.

“Uber has been in a political campaign but hasn’t been running one,” Kalanick said in a statement. “That is changing now.”

One thing that remains to be seen is how well Plouffe’s tactics translate overseas, where Uber faces some of the stiffest resistance. Last week, for example, the Berlin state authority issued a ruling prohibiting Uber from picking up passengers, saying the services did not meet passenger safety standards. On Monday, a court suspended the ban.

Zittrain said that any effort to make government relations a higher priority had a big potential upside.

“Whether it’s to persuade local regulators using their own vernacular why these new services are to be accommodated,” he said, “or to tap national lawmakers to explicitly bless them, it can be crucial to include people on a corporate policy team who know the ways of government.”

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