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Axelrod at the White House as a senior adviserWhen 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.
“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  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