"It’s been an incredible lift to be home," says David Axelrod, pictured here in his River North office in July.
In February, after two years in the White House, where he sat mere feet from the Oval Office, David Axelrod returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago to begin work on Barack Obama’s reelection effort. In late July, we talked to the president’s chief strategist, who first arrived here as a college student in 1972, about the benefits of headquartering the 2012 campaign in Chicago, what he misses about working in the West Wing, and how he’s adjusting to life back at home.
You were born and raised in New York City. Why did you end up settling down in Chicago? Any regrets about not going back to New York?
I came out here for college. The University of Chicago is a great school, but I came out here primarily because of the politics of the city. At that time, it was the home of the last big city machine, and there had been a really volatile Democratic convention in 1968. It just seemed like a really interesting place to be. So I came out here to go to college, and I started working at the Chicago Tribune two days after I graduated. I never regretted [staying]. I didn’t come out here expecting to stay, but I got this job at the Tribune, and I fell in love with the city, and I fell in love with a woman from the city. [Axelrod met his wife, Susan, through a basketball league.] I think this is the greatest city in America—a big city with a small-town sense of community. I just love Chicago.
What did you miss most about Chicago while you were in Washington?
First thing I missed was my family; they were here, I was there. That was difficult. But I just really enjoy living in this town. I like the sports here. I like going to the symphony. I like being able to walk the lakefront. My wife gets irritated with me because we go walking in the city, and invariably, at some point, I’ll say, “Isn’t this a great city?” And she goes, “Yes, Dave, we’ve been married 32 years, it’s a great city, OK? I’ve heard enough of that.” But it’s been an incredible lift to be home. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Everything I loved about the city I love even more now that I’ve missed it for a couple of years.
How has it been readjusting to life at home with your wife?
It’s been like being a newlywed all over again. I enjoy every minute that we spend together, and when we’re apart even for a day, I’m excited to see her again.
Anything you miss about working in the West Wing?
Mostly I miss the people. I interact with the president regularly, but I miss seeing him on a daily basis. I loved my colleagues there. Obviously, every minute you’re dealing with something very consequential—you’re in the nerve center of the world—and that’s fun and it’s interesting. But at the end of the day, it’s the relationships that I miss the most. I worked with a bunch of really wonderful and very talented people, very committed people, and those are associations I’ll value for the rest of my life.
The president’s reelection campaign headquarters is back in Chicago. What are the benefits of running things from here?
Washington is a big echo chamber and a one-industry town—it’s a hotbed of conventional thinking. If we had run our 2008 campaign out of Washington, we probably wouldn’t have won because we would’ve made bad decisions based on sort of the conventional thinking of the town. So we wanted to spare our campaign from that and put it back here in Chicago, where folks could concentrate on their mission and not get distracted by the day-to-day yammerings of the punditocracy in Washington. Secondly, it’s central to the country. We’re a campaign that believes in organizing, and this is a place that’s close to everywhere. It’s easy to travel in and out of. And plus, it’s the president’s home.
A lot of Chicago folks were part of the 2008 campaign, including many key advisers and even some logo and Web designers. This time around, you’ve hired Harper Reed, formerly of the local company Threadless, as your CTO. Will the campaign keep looking for talent here, even with the national pool available to you?
I’m sure we will. By the time the general election rolled around in 2008, we could have availed ourselves of talent from around the country, and we did. But Chicago is a font of creative talent and enthusiasm, and we’re going to take advantage of the resources that are here.
Does it help that your good friend Rahm Emanuel is the mayor?
I think we would’ve headquartered here regardless [of Emanuel’s election], but it’s an added bonus that someone so close to so many of us is the mayor. It’s exciting to watch him chart his course and bring energy and enthusiasm to the city. Plus he’s nearby, and one thing about Rahm is that he’s always generous with his advice.
The reelection campaign is different from 2008 in that you’re no longer introducing Obama’s biography to voters. What’s the approach this time around?
I think one’s biography—who you are and what your values and sensibilities are—is always important in any campaign. But he’s been president for three or four years. People know him well. I think this campaign is going to be very much about competing visions for what kind of country we want and how we get there. And we believe very strongly in a country in which people get a fair shake, that if you work hard, you can get ahead. I think there’s a much different philosophy on the other side, and we’re going to have a great debate about it.
You’re an avid sports fan. Do you root for New York or Chicago teams? Also, Cubs or Sox?
I’ve had the very good fortune of living in two cities where there are two baseball teams, so I could go to a game anytime I want. I like both teams. I’m a National League guy by birth, and I have a certain underdog allegiance to the Cubs, but I really like the White Sox, too, and I’m grateful to be able to see a game every day if I want to. Not that I often have a chance.
Photograph: Esther Kang