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With the Obamas before Barack accepted the nomination for president
For some time, a caricature of Axelrod hung on a wall in his River North consulting office, AKPD Message and Media, depicting a gaggle of political operatives spinning a reporter at an Iowa bar, with Axelrod’s mustachioed mug the most recognizable among them. Axelrod, 56, has a look made for caricaturing, even more so as the years have passed and his hair has thinned to an unavailing comb-over. He tends to wear rumpled—and sometimes food-spattered—clothes and favors comfort over style in his footwear. Eric Lesser, the former White House staffer who served as Axelrod’s right-hand man during his two years in Washington, has occasionally regaled reporters with tales of Axelrod dribbling oatmeal on his ties, among other faux pas.
But by the spring of 2010, the caricature was starting to look like a realistic portrait. That March, a New York Times story depicted Axelrod as appearing droopy eyed and “more burdened than usual.” In it, the sportswriter Sam Smith, Axelrod’s old friend from their days working together as reporters at the Chicago Tribune, was quoted using the word “burnout” to describe his former colleague. According to Smith, an exasperated Axelrod called him after reading the article, asking, “Why did you tell The New York Times I was burned-out?” Smith said his quote was taken out of context, but the larger meme was already established.
“There is a conceit that grew, and it was predicated on the notion that we were a bunch of naive idealists that came to change Washington, and Washington beat us down,” Axelrod says. “I became symbolic of that. Now my guess is I look weathered, tired, and rumpled all the time, and I have for most of my life. It is just the way I look.”
Of course, Axelrod could have been forgiven for showing some wear, given that Obama took office in the midst of a financial crisis. Defenders of the administration blame the scale of the challenges Obama faced from day one for some of the problems in controlling the message. “They put aside the larger narrative framing as a priority and immediately started rolling up their sleeves,” says Chris Lehane, who served as press secretary for Al Gore’s presidential campaign and has worked with Axelrod in the past.
Axelrod sounds a similar note. “We were involved in a series of crises, many swirling around the economy, that made communications really, really challenging,” he says. “But in the process, the president spent a lot of time talking about details of government and not nearly enough time talking about the principles that animate him.”
By this line of thought, the unpopularity of Obamacare and the Democrats’ landslide loss last November of 63 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate were the result of poor PR rather than bad policy. “I think health care [reform] was a real shame, because the [legislative] sausage making became the story rather than the tens of millions who were going to be covered,” says Patti Solis Doyle, the Chicagoan who served as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2008. “They didn’t grasp how bad 2010 was going to be. The election results were a big wake-up call.”
Another strategist, who has known Axelrod for years, says the White House banked too hard on a “Field of Dreams mentality,” presuming that if “you build the successes, the public will come.”
Supporters say Axelrod got too much blame for the administration’s perceived mousiness. “I thought it was always unfair,” says Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who served alongside Axelrod as the White House chief of staff. “The key legislative items like health care reform or regulatory reform—these were big, intractable problems. These were very big pieces of legislation that are easy to malign if you want to be in the opposition. David doesn’t bear that responsibility by himself. He is also the person in the White House who helped pass [the legislation].”
As Democrats licked their wounds after the midterm elections, the administration was boosted by a series of late-year political successes—namely, the signing of a tax cut bill that proved even a chastened Obama could still move legislation. In January, the president delivered an emotional speech in Tucson after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, and followed it up with his generally well-received State of the Union address—Axelrod’s last big White House project. The speech was an effort to reframe Obama’s image with a phrase that is a potential campaign slogan for 2012: “winning the future.”
The slogan is important, says Axelrod, “because it implies that we have to do things, that we can’t just be flotsam on the historical waters and expect to arrive where we want to go, that there are things we have to [do to] secure the future for ourselves and our children.” Still, “winning the future” is, he says, “a more clinical phrase than is useful to tell the whole story.”
To figure out that story, Axelrod knew he needed to escape the Beltway and reacquaint himself with the world in which voters live. He needed to get back to Chicago.
Photograph: ALEX BRANDON / AP