David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett

The End of the Line: Romney vs. Obama: the 34 days that decided the election, by Politico writers Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin, is full of insider intelligence, especially about the Denver debate debacle, the first presidential matchup that left Obama’s aides despondent and in fear that he’d just handed the election to Romney.

The last of a four-e-book series on the 2012 campaign, The End of the Line was preceded by two on the chaotic battle for the Republican nomination and a third on Team Obama as it fought for a second term.

Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod are the most prominently featured Chicagoans in Thrush’s and Martin’s reporting. (Thrush is Politico’s senior White House reporter and Martin its senior political writer.)

On election night, the authors write, Axelrod was irritated with Romney for waiting hours to concede after the race had been called for Obama: “I was pissed. It was just sort of childish to wait as long as he did.” Valerie Jarrett was even more anxious as she awaited Romney’s call to the president; as she talked, “half jokingly, at the televised image of Romney’s empty podium in Boston, a thousand miles to the east [of Chicago]. `Come on, call!’ she said.”

Frequently evoking the Obama of 2008 to explain the Obama of 2012, the authors write that “the sepia-toned image of Obama as a flawless candidate in 2008” was inaccurate. “His top aides had always viewed him as a moody, inconsistent performer who sagged when he felt bored, depressed or unmotivated. [David] Plouffe and Axelrod had famously refused to sign on for the first campaign if the candidate didn’t promise to give them his best effort.” The Obama who showed up at the disastrous first debate in Denver last October was the one who was “eager to hop back on Air Force One to watch ESPN, take a policy briefing, or play cards with his press secretary, Jay Carney….”

It so happened that the Denver debate debacle fell on Barack and Michelle’s wedding anniversary. Following the custom of family members rushing to the stage to greet debaters with smiles and hugs, Michelle joined her husband to congratulate him. She, along with almost anyone watching, knew he had bombed, but he thought he had fought Romney to “a draw” and was “upbeat” as he walked backstage with Michelle. To his “downcast aides,” he said “C’mon, I didn’t think it was that bad.”

The authors quote a “Democratic source” as reporting that Michelle “corrected” him: “No, it wasn’t good.” The First Couple then “sped off to the DoubleTree at the Denver airport for an anniversary dinner….” When Axelrod encountered Obama later that night, Obama, who had been checking websites on his iPad to gauge reaction, told Axelrod, “The coverage is not good.” Axelrod replied,  “Um, yes, that’s the consensus.” At around that time Obama stopped using his iPad, explaining that he didn’t want to digest the negativity on all those websites he was surfing.

That Denver debate in front of 67 million Americans—the result of which sent Obama’s numbers down and Romney’s up—was a big, sharp stone in Jarrett’s shoe. While Obama’s staffers were annoyed, feeling a “palpable resentment” toward Obama for blowing an opportunity to put the election away that night, Jarrett was annoyed, not with Obama, but with his staff, “and felt they should have imposed more focus on the prep process.” After Denver, the book says, Jarrett started “second-guessing every decision everybody was making…. Her intervention made the situation more fraught than it needed to be,” as Obama prepared for subsequent debates. Nobody could rein in Jarrett because she was “one of the few untouchables in Obama’s orbit, regarded by many as Michelle Obama’s personal emissary, so the team treaded lightly…. She clearly provided him with emotional support but would often `stir him up’ by reading him an unflattering blog post…. It would be a good idea, several top staffers quietly agreed, if Jarrett were to be occupied with business that didn’t offer her much unstructured time with Obama on Air Force One during the final weeks.”  

So she was dispatched as a surrogate to battleground states to “rally various constituencies.” The authors quote a “top Democratic official” as explaining that it was important “that she was gainfully employed somewhere else.” 

For a campaign based on polling, research, mathematics, the Obama camp was surprisingly superstitious. According to Thrush and Martin, before the second debate at Hofstra University, the campaign imposed a “blanket ban” on Thai food because that’s what the debate prep team had eaten before the Denver debate. “No one wore the same clothes, shoes, or watches or followed the same routine: if you had gone for a jog 13 days earlier, you went for a swim this time. In Chicago, the debate-night war room was moved from one anonymous conference room to another to kill …`the evil black magic.’ Plouffe sent [Axelrod] a picture of the two of them from election day 2008. It came with a message: Find that tie you were wearing, put it on, and don’t take it off until we win again. It took Axe about 20 minutes to root around the bottom of his closet, but he eventually found it.”

The lion’s share of quotes and anecdotes come from unnamed, usually Democratic sources—perhaps inevitable for this roughest draft of history, released a bit more than a month before Obama is inaugurated for a second term. Few people are willing to risk their second-term livelihoods to go on the record.

Surprisingly, our own Rahm Emanuel appears only once in The End of the Line—a sure sign of his evolution, or—depending on how you look at it—his devolution from national operative to Chicago mayor.

Rahm makes his sole appearance early on election night when he tells a reporter, reverting to his pre-mayoral form: “It’s not going to be all that fucking close, way more than 300 in the Electoral College.” He was right.


Photography: (Axelrod) Esther Kang; (Jarrett) Chicago Tribune