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Axelrod with Obama on the campaign trail in 2008
Axelrod has always excelled at helping candidates connect with voters through their personal stories, something he did to perfection in 2008, when the insurgent Obama inspired hope and promised change—and entered the White House with approval ratings so high there was perhaps only one way they could go.
“When you have a transcendent campaign and candidate—where he became this Rorschach test for people who projected on him their own hopes, aspirations, issues, and expectations—by the president’s own admission he knew he was going to be a disappointment,” says Eric Adelstein, a Chicago Democratic strategist who has crossed paths with Axelrod over the years. “It would have been nice if this were just a movie and it faded to black after he gave his acceptance speech.”
While the president’s curriculum vitae grew fat—most notably with a $787 billion stimulus bill and health care and financial reform legislation—his poll numbers steadily sank, leading to the Democrats’ “shellacking,” as Obama called it, in the November 2010 elections. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden this past May boosted approval of the president only briefly, after which his ratings dipped back below 50 percent. It wasn’t just tea partyers who were unhappy. Even some Obama supporters felt let down, at least in part because of the administration’s perceived inability to communicate effectively or harness Obama’s rhetorical gifts to win public support for his policies. “We used the president too much to do a lot of routine government announcements,” Axelrod acknowledges.
When Axelrod spoke in June at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, the moderator, Time political columnist Joe Klein, picked up on the theme of disappointment in the president, telling Axelrod onstage, “[People] know he is smart. They know that he is trying hard. They wonder why he hasn’t been more forceful, why he hasn’t cut through.”
It was essentially the same question that has been directed at Axelrod since last spring: How has such a verbally agile president gotten so bogged down in communicating his vision to the country? “I think what I’ve learned and what I want to continue to hone—in certain ways, it is something I have been thinking about since the midterm elections—is we really need to return to first principles,” Axelrod says. “Go back to the 2004 [Democratic National] Convention speech, and [Obama] was very eloquent about what it is that we’re after as Americans. And he’s working on how to tell that story in the midst of the [economic] storm here. We have two focuses: One is to recover from the recession, and the other is to restore the security of middle-class families. Explaining that—when we haven’t fully recovered from the recession and people are very much feeling that economic uncertainty in their own lives—is challenging. So I want to think more about how to make that case.”
Axelrod has good reason to weigh matters carefully. The coming election will be a referendum on Obama’s first term and will offer voters a choice between two starkly different governing philosophies. If Republicans retake the White House, their mission will be to repeal Obama’s health care reforms and kill the rest of the expansive Democratic agenda of the past few years. More specifically, the outcome will shape Axelrod’s legacy, especially after two bruising years in the White House dented his reputation as a master of messaging. Will he be remembered as the shrewd political strategist of 2008, who could do no wrong, or as the man who oversaw Barack Obama’s transformation from modern-day FDR, as he was portrayed early in his presidency, to a one-term Democratic president à la Jimmy Carter?
Photograph: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune