David Axelrod: Working in the White House 'a little bit of a narcotic'

February 23, 2015

See, now this is just the thing David Axelrod was trying to prevent when his publicist required confidentiality agreements from reporters getting advance copies of his book, "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics."

Just days before the release of the memoir by the man who engineered Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, The New York Daily News "obtained" a copy and published what it deemed the juiciest parts.

Ripest among them: Mitt Romney’s concession call in the 2012 presidential election.

In the book, Axelrod recalled Obama being "unsmiling" during the call, and "slightly irritated when it was over."

The president told Axelrod that Romney admitted he was surprised at his own loss.

Worse, Romney insinuated that Obama only won because he got the vote out "in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee," Obama told Axelrod, his senior adviser.

"In other words, black people," Obama said. "That’s what he thinks this was all about."

Axelrod, 59, had barely started his book tour when the Romney story went viral. Morning news shows, blogs and Beltway blowhards were in a feeding frenzy.

Just what Axelrod had dreaded.

"Stupid kerfuffle," he said over the phone, munching a chocolate-covered graham cracker in a car headed to Terre Haute, Indiana.

"That’s how any books that you write get treated these days. It’s not about the book itself, it’s about what nugget can be derived from it to cause some sort of controversy that will last 24 hours.

"I only tried to write things that would advance the narrative," Axelrod continued. "I didn’t want to feed the beast. But the truth is when you write it, you never know how people are going to receive it."

Oh, they’re receiving it all right. "Believer" wasn’t even out when it was a number-one new release on Amazon.

"Believer" is a well-written tome that holds both the warmth of a memoir and the cool reality of political strategy.

But Axelrod also explains how he and Obama were fused in a certain idealism; a desire to do the right thing for the country.

Axelrod and Obama first met in 2002, when Obama was mulling a 2004 Senate run, despite having just lost a race for Congress.

Axelrod had covered politics for Chicago papers and written speeches and ads when the two joined forces. It was Axelrod who came up with "Yes We Can" for the first TV spot for Obama’s Senate campaign. The slogan would carry him all the way to the presidency.

"The whole idea was to make this not just about him, but what we could do together," Axelrod explained. "And there was such cynicism that pervades. It told the story of his life, which defied all conventional wisdom. ‘They say we can’t change Washington, and I approve this message to say yes, we can.’

"The affirmative feeling. And the ‘we’ was what we could do together. It kind of summed up the gestalt of the campaign."

The biggest message, though, was "The sense that we could actually confront some of the big problems that were facing us, that we had the ability to do things," Axelrod said. "We could end wars, reform the health care system, reduce climate change, end discrimination against gays and lesbians.

"In the big scheme of things, I think (Obama) lived up to the challenge the campaign laid out for him. Thinking about the next generation, not just the next election."

Obama is strong in his conviction that he is in the White House to govern, so he rejected the idea of bringing the political techniques of campaigns, like polls, into his decision-making.

"His notion was that we’re not in the campaign anymore," Axelrod said. "He didn’t get angry when I presented him with polling numbers suggesting it was unwise to do something. But he had no problem with ignoring that advice."

Axelrod lives in Chicago, where he is a political consultant and director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

He and his wife, Susan Landau, have three children and just had their first grandchild. Their middle child, a girl named Lauren, suffers from epilepsy, a diagnosis that played a part in Axelrod’s decision to leave the White House.

It took him a couple of years to adjust.

"There is nothing like being in the White House because every single minute, you’re dealing with something hugely challenging," he said. "You are constantly stimulated. It’s a little bit of a narcotic."

But he recently went to a movie with his wife in the middle of the day on a weekday and found it "sublime."

"I am really appreciative of the time we get to spend together," he said. "I’m not involved in the pathology of Washington, a single-industry town."

That doesn’t mean he can’t handicap the next presidential election.

Who does he believe in?

"There are plenty of inspiring people in politics," he said, calling out Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who invited Axelrod to speak at her Golden Tennis Shoe Awards.

But as for who should run?

"I don’t want to do this," Axelrod said, "because the focus would be on who I omitted."

Fine. So, when Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush run for president, what should their campaigns focus on?

"I think they will both run on middle-class economic issues and stagnant wages," Axelrod said. "Jeb has a bigger challenge getting there. But I think they both realize how fundamental this is. The American dream says if you work hard, you will get ahead. If you stay where you were born, then we’re not America anymore.

"We need to recapture that," he said. "Or we’re not going to be who we think we are."




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