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“I have one campaign left,” says Axelrod, “and it is going to be to try to elect a guy who I think is a great president.”
In early June, soon after another dismal jobs report stoked anxieties about the economy—the issue that will dominate the 2012 presidential campaign—the man tasked with masterminding Barack Obama’s reelection strategy, David Axelrod, sat in the conference room of his Chicago office, legs crossed, feet shod in waterproof sandals, a picture of serenity on the eve of electoral battle. As the chief strategist behind Obama’s heady 2008 presidential campaign and for two tumultuous years the president’s top adviser in the White House, Axelrod wasn’t the type to panic over a lousy economic report.
“One of the great things about having the experiences we’ve had,” he said, referring to Obama’s core of advisers, which has remained largely intact since 2007, “is we’ve been through so many ups and downs over the last four or five years that we don’t get intoxicated when things take a good turn, and we don’t get all flustered when we hit bumps in the road.”
In a year when some of those bumps are starting to look like hills—an economy stuck on sputter, high unemployment, sagging house prices and consumer confidence, soaring deficits and debt—Axelrod’s equanimity is sure to be tested. Within the president’s circle, he carries two unofficial job titles—keeper of the long view and keeper of the brand—that reflect his role in helping Team Obama stay on message and resist the temptation to change strategy in the heat of the moment. If Karl Rove was George W. Bush’s brain, as some observers have described him, Axelrod is more like Obama’s frontal lobe—the region that patterns emotion and regulates impulse control. And as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up, Axelrod’s counsel is as calming as it is simple: Be patient.
I first caught up with Axelrod in January of this year, as he was stepping down from his White House role as senior adviser to the president, and then met with him half a dozen more times in Chicago over the course of the winter and spring, while he recovered from the crucible of the White House and geared up for what may be his last race as a political strategist. “I have one campaign left,” he told me a week before he left Washington, “and it is going to be to try to elect a guy who I think is a great president.”
Photograph: Jeff Sciortino