David Axelrod Recounts His Years As Obama's Adviser And 'Believer'
David Axelrod recalls the first time he met Barack Obama in 1992 when they had lunch: "I was really impressed by him," he says.
The veteran political consultant was struck that Obama, who had been the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and was highly sought after by big law firms, instead decided to put together a voter registration drive and practice civil rights law at a little firm in Chicago.
The world of candidates, Axelrod tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, divides into two candidates: "People who run for office because they want to be something, which is the more numerous category, and people who run for office because they want to do something," he says. "That is the smaller and more admirable group that I love to work with and for. It was clear he was going to be that kind of a person."
Axelrod ended up crafting the media strategy for Obama's two presidential campaigns and spent two years in the White House as a senior adviser to the president. His new memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, offers plenty of stories and insights from his years with Obama.
Specifically, Axelrod recalls the moment in the 2008 campaign when he interrupted Obama and running mate Joe Biden on a flight to tell them Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee, which prompted Biden to say, "Who's Sarah Palin?"
Axelrod's book also recounts his early years as a political reporter and his work with other candidates, including presidential contender John Edwards (not a good experience) and plenty of rogues and colorful characters from his home base in Chicago, among them Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and Rod Blagojevich, who eventually became governor and went to jail in part for trying to sell Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
Axelrod is now director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, which he says he founded to inspire young Americans to consider participating in American politics.
On the transition from being a journalist to a political adviser
The first time I was at a rally with [Paul] Simon after I made the switch and realized that I could applaud, it was kind of a shock to my system because I was so used to maintaining at least the veneer of objectivity. I think every reporter has views, but you try to be as objective as you can.
On whether he believed in every candidate he represented
I always went through a process of trying to sell myself before I tried to sell anybody else, and I would get emotionally wrapped up in my campaigns and sometimes on behalf of candidates who weren't worthy of that.
On President Obama's first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012 for his re-election
We were always worried about the first debate because it historically is a killing field for presidents. Presidents aren't used to debating. Their opponents have generally been debating in primaries; presidents aren't used to being challenged by someone standing 4 feet away from them, being treated as a peer.
So presidents generally do badly in the first debate, and we tried mightily to avoid that. But the prep sessions didn't go very well. There were a lot of testy exchanges with John Kerry, who was playing Mitt Romney. We actually cautioned the president against engaging too much, which may have been a mistake, because we were worried about the testiness of those exchanges.
It drives my wife crazy. She hates the caricature of the rumpled, sloppy, food-stained political warrior — but that's the cartoon and I've come to live with it. Maybe I've come to represent it, I don't know.
We had a last prep session before the first debate in Denver, which we all thought was pretty appalling. ... I had the dubious honor of going in and talking to him for the group after the session, and he said, "Well, I think that went pretty well." And I said, "Well, actually there are some things we need to work on yet." He didn't receive that news well and used a word that he has never used before or since and that I won't use here, but made clear how he felt about me at that moment, and he bolted out of the room and I didn't see him until the next morning.
I was kind of stunned by it because we'd known each other for so long, but I also knew that he really wasn't directing it at me so much as at his own frustration, because he knew we weren't where we needed to be. I think every single one of us, including the president, knew we weren't headed into Denver in good shape — and that, of course, turned out to be true.
On following the many different media platforms
Yes, you follow Twitter and you're aware that any little event somewhere could hijack a day's news, sometimes a week's news or several weeks' news. It makes [for] a really, really difficult environment. It also means that if you're president — we used to talk about the "bully pulpit" — but you have to assemble your bully pulpit each time you want to communicate something, because Americans aren't watching the same thing or aren't getting their news from the same place as they once did. So you have to speak through many different platforms.
I mean, who would've thought that the president of the United States would be on a show called Between Two Ferns to promote his health care plan? But the fact is he hit 10 million people with that appearance — many of whom were the target for younger people who we needed to sign up for that health care plan. So it's a far more complex and challenging environment than past presidents and past generations have faced.
On how Axelrod restrained himself while on Meet the Press and other shows
It was hard, but, you know, when you're speaking for the president of the United States, you know that one misstatement can send armies marching and markets tumbling — and that is a very sobering realization.
So, yes, I felt constrained when I was on those programs to color within the lines and not to be too venturesome, because I knew some off-handed remark could have real consequences. ... It was a discipline that was hard for me because I'm a congenital smart aleck and I love tossing off good lines — and this was decidedly not the place to do it.
On what he's been called in the media, including Axelfraud, Streetfighter, Message Maven, Political Protector, Marxist Mentor and Lefty Lumberjack
The "Axelfraud" thing sticks in my mind because those guys were shouting it at me when I was on the steps of the Capitol in Massachusetts. I hadn't heard Lefty Lumberjack — it seems like an oxymoron to me. But I'm surprised, though, that on your list there aren't [other descriptive words]. "Rumpled" almost always comes up, and "stained" is another one because generally you can find remnants of my last meal somewhere on me. The president loves that. He's always inspecting me so he can ask me what it was that I had that he's looking at. So those are the ones that are most prominent in my mind. It drives my wife crazy. She hates the caricature of the rumpled, sloppy, food-stained political warrior — but that's the cartoon and I've come to live with it. Maybe I've come to represent it, I don't know.
On leaving politics to direct the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago
I really am happy to be where I am today, and I think my family is happy that I am where I am today. I asked them to make so many sacrifices — and I want to spend the rest of my life trying to inspire these kids and spend time with my family.
If people call me and ask me for advice, of course I'll give it to them, but I'm not going to get on that carousel again. I had such a singularly great experience with Obama. I had a relationship with him that I'll never have with anyone else, and I'd rather go out on top and move on.
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