David Axelrod’s Last Campaign

As Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist in 2008, David Axelrod helped craft a winning message of hope and change. Now he’s back for what he says will be his final political campaign. His game plan for 2012 could determine whether Obama gets to finish what he started—or sees it all slip away

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Axelrod at his River North office
Axelrod at his River North office in July


Q&A »
Axelrod on Chicago as the campaign HQ, what he misses about the West Wing, and more

From the archives: our December 1987 profile

Chicago’s winners and losers in Election 2008

Leaving Washington, says Axelrod, was like exiting a “whirling carousel.” And for symbolic purposes, he picked an appropriate time to return to Chicago: February 2, 2011, the day the city experienced one of its worst blizzards ever. “I want to spend time with people who don’t talk about Politico over dinner,” he said a few days later, over a bowl of matzo ball soup at Manny’s, the University Village deli where politicians like to congregate and where Axelrod is honored with his own table. “The conversation out here is so different. I was struck by [that on] the day when I got home. Cable TV was all about [the uprisings in] Egypt, and local TV was all about snow. It underscored [that] the reality of everyday life is different than the discussion in Washington.”

Over the next few months, Axelrod continued to decompress. He settled into his old office—he’s no longer a partner at AKPD, though he still rents space there—and lined up speaking engagements. He spent some time with his wife, Susan, at their Michigan cottage, vacationed for a week in Puerto Rico, took in several Bulls games, and rejoined his old pickup basketball crew at the West Loop Athletic Club. He read a little: Bill Simmons’s book on basketball, Thurston Clarke’s book on Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, and, perhaps as a primer for the campaign ahead, Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

“It was very interesting for me to observe the strategist’s mind as he recalibrated from being in the room on a day-to-day basis, inundated with so many of the decisions in government that matter a great deal but are not in the forefront of the [political] narrative,” says Larry Grisolano, Axelrod’s longtime partner and a top Obama campaign consultant.

While he reconnected with the real America, Axelrod was loath to make any formal declarations about the state of the electorate. “I think I have a sense of it, but I don’t think I have my arms around it,” he said in February. “I think it is very hard to get your arms around it in the White House. It is like working in a submarine, and you see the world through a periscope. You can see things, but it is not nearly as effective as walking out among the land people.” He maintained this agnosticism throughout the spring. By June, two months after the 2012 campaign had officially gotten under way, he said he was “far more relaxed,” having narrowed his focus to just the reelection. “I don’t have responsibilities for all these other events,” he said. “For me, the great advantage is I can step back. And this is what I always hoped, that there would be more clarity when I could step back and just focus on this.”

“Axelrod getting out of the White House will allow him to have the head space to re-sync with President Obama as he did in 2008, and by doing that, they’ll be able to get back to being an incredibly effective tag team,” says the Democratic strategist who has known Axelrod for years. “President Obama needs David to be grounded in his soul, in his Chicago soul. It is critical.”

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Photograph: Esther Kang



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