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 the White House as a senior adviser
When he left Washington, Axelrod said he didn’t expect to be on the road much during the campaign, but by midsummer it appeared that notion had changed. “The truth is we should be on the road as much as we can,” says Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager. “The president said to both of us he wants us in states talking to people.” It’s an approach that suits the old newspaperman in Axelrod. “What I tried to do as a reporter,” he says, “I’ve tried always to do in my work in politics, which is not to presuppose that I know everything about the places in which I am working, but to know the right questions to ask. I am trying to approach this the same way. I am trying to ask the right questions so we can get the story.”

One key question on Axelrod’s mind is how to combat the tea party, a subject that has occupied him since his early days in the White House. A number of Obama advisers credit Axelrod with almost single-handedly holding the line early on against dismissing the tea party as a feckless and fringe right-wing movement. “Axelrod, from the very beginning, kept saying, ‘Be careful. This is more than just extremists. They are tapping into something very real,’” says Grisolano.

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“Ax was one of the first people to really start raising on a regular basis in the White House the fact that this wasn’t just a grass-tops effort, that this represented a genuine frustration in the country,” says Anita Dunn, who served as the White House communications director in 2009.

Soon after departing Washington, Axelrod was beta-testing tea party counterplay, and by summer he was ratcheting it up. At the Cable Show, a television industry trade show in Chicago in June, he told an audience that the eventual Republican nominee would only be weakened by the “shrill voices” of conservative activists.

Of course, getting Obama reelected will involve more than just knocking down the opposition. It will require building up Obama and reselling him to voters who either haven’t bought into his policies or have lost faith in them. Obama’s advisers still think that the president’s personal story can be used in 2012. “It is not about building a character from scratch,” says Grisolano. “It is more about how the public interprets what they’re seeing now.”

Joel Benenson, Obama’s chief campaign pollster, adds, “I think the [2008] narrative was built largely around not just biography but personal characteristics. And the strength of the president in the first campaign and the reelection campaign [is that] those personal characteristics are extremely strong and have great resonance with average Americans.”

To win back disaffected centrist voters, the Obama campaign will remind them of his successes. “There are a lot of people who followed the deliberative process and the successful accomplishment of [the bin Laden] mission,” says Pete Giangreco, the campaign’s lead direct-mail consultant. “It is not just a story that he killed bin Laden. It’s the way he went through a tough decision and did the right thing. It says something about character. That is a thematic that works.”

It is also clear that the campaign will try to play the grownup card, portraying Obama as the reasonable adult above the fray. “I think most Americans and most independent voters and swing voters—most people—are looking for a level of reasonableness in their elected leaders,” says Jim Margolis, Obama’s campaign ad guru.

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The standard practice for presidential campaign advisers is to depart the scene after the reelection. And whatever the outcome of the 2012 campaign, Axelrod, the driving force behind the election of the first African American president, can savor the laurels he has won. “I think he has already earned a place on the pedestal,” says Howard Wolfson, the spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Axelrod has decided not to work on a memoir until after the 2012 election, but at some point after the dust has settled, it is likely that he will sit down and put his own story into words. He hasn’t felt the need to read any of the tomes about the 2008 presidential race or the first term of the Obama administration. “I lived it,” he says. “I also don’t want to bias my own thinking on that, just in case.”

Aside from writing, Axelrod is planning to head up a university-based political institution of some sort and has been listening to pitches from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, which is considered the leading candidate to house Obama’s presidential library.

At least one person is skeptical that Axelrod will step away from the political rough-and-tumble for good after the election. Bruce Meckler, his longtime friend and personal attorney, says Axelrod “has way too much energy” not to end up on some campaign in 2016.

But almost everyone else I spoke to sees this as the denouement to a quarter of a century in politics. “This isn’t his whole life,” says Giangreco. “This isn’t who he is. He has a longer view of himself, not just a long view of the campaign.”

Axelrod essentially said the same thing in January as we sat in his White House office during his final week on the job. Even then, during a blip of serendipity, he seemed to sense that the coming campaign would test the limits of his composure. “Am I going to go back and do races for senators and governors and mayors?” he said. “I don’t really think I can. I don’t know if I have the patience for it.”

 

Photograph: Charles Dharapak / AP

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comments
3 years ago
Posted by FunnyIfNotSad

Dear Mr. Axelrod: Many of us voted for Obama based on the promise of 'hope' and 'change'. We believed that he was real and genuine. Somehow, I thought we were getting a 'third way' sort of President who would actually work with Republicans and reign in the House and Senate crazy Democrat liberals. Instead, we got a plain old clueless condescending liberal who's only answer to all issues is government regulation and spending, with a certain amount of class envy thrown in for the grass roots. You misrepresented what we were buying. Don't be so shocked that it has been widely rejected.

2 years ago
Posted by sarah7272

Mr. Axelrod, I have watched you for a long time and I admire your cool head. For Obama to win in 2012, he has to do something way out of this world and you have to help him do that as you have before.
I believe that the American people have the opportunity to do something about there complaints about the do nothing congress this November, but as usual they will not. That is ashame.
Obama, to win, has to do something about jobs and the economy, not just give speeches about it. He needs to pull something out of the box that is reasonable but also that is more agressive than anything this country has ever seen and that could never be envisioned by the Republicans and he needs to drive that agenda with such force, either with the help of congress or by eddict, that has never been imagined.
The American people want better times and change and will listen to something they can understand and that has a good possibility of suceeding.
Do you believe that either of the past President Bush group would have put up with Congress being the way they are today. Not in your or my lifetime. I am counting on you and so are the American people. Everyone needs to remember that not only the President but Congress in in Washington to do the work and will of the people, not the will of the party or what they are paid to do by special interest groups, the later is call bribery.

2 years ago
Posted by conservative

mr axelrod why are liberals and obama destroying this great country,why are the liberals and obama pathological liars mitt romney needs to win this election before obama and the liberals destroy thisa country worse then they already did

2 years ago
Posted by conservative

sarah7272 you are wrong ,what the liberals are doing to this great country is apalling,mitt romney needs to win so the liberals dont destroy this great country any more then it is

2 years ago
Posted by Yes an

Yes we can !
Yes we can !
By the grace of God,
Yes we can !

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