Veteran Democratic strategist Jerry Austin needed only 11 words to capture David Axelrod, his fellow campaign consultant and the man who has guided Barack Obama’s political operations from the very start: “Smart. Experienced. New Yorker. In your face. Totally trusted by Obama.” Probably no one who has worked with or against Axelrod would disagree—although some identify him so thoroughly with his adopted hometown of Chicago that they forget he’s a graduate of Stuyvesant, Manhattan’s top public high school.
Perhaps no adviser is more responsible for turning an unknown state senator into a president. Axelrod likes to project an image as a hard-bitten cynic, befitting his previous life as a political journalist. And even though he was one of the younger reporters on the road, his coverage of the 1980 Democratic primaries for the Chicago Tribune was some of the best, taking him to the tumultuous convention that year in New York. All these years later, he still gets excited at the memory, noting with pride just last week, “Got some really colorful stories out of the Chicago delegation.” But he probably couldn’t have imagined then that he’d be running the show eight conventions later.
His decision to leave that high-profile Tribune job to help a little-known downstate Democrat take on an incumbent Republican senator just might have been because he was more of an idealist than reporters generally like to admit.
Axelrod is not really a hired gun. He likes to believe in his candidates. In 1984, he believed in the liberal Rep. Paul Simon and helped engineer an upset of Republican Sen. Charles Percy. And more than two decades later, he came to believe in state Sen. Barack Obama. He guided him to the Democratic Senate nomination and an easy general-election win. Almost immediately, he started plotting a path to the White House for the freshman senator. And just as he had with Simon, he forged a close relationship with a man who became, he boasted later, “not just a client. He’s a very good friend of mine. We share a worldview.” Obama agreed, telling The New York Times, “He and I share a basic worldview. I trust his basic take on what the country should be and where we need to move toward.”
Even when the tough times of 2010 came and criticism mounted of Axelrod’s White House message operation, the president continued to rely on Axelrod, who after that election moved to Chicago to be reunited with his family and to pull together the reelection campaign. Now, with the convention ready to send Obama out on what he calls “my final campaign,” the strategy is unmistakably Axelrod’s: Don’t try to copy 2008, and hit hard at the Republicans.
“As a practitioner you can make the mistake of sitting on the back of the truck and looking back on what happened before,” Axelrod told Convention Daily. “There’s always a different twist and turn in the road up ahead. I don’t think there is a recent historical precedent for what we’re seeing. There’s nothing that fits easily into the rubric of this election. No president has walked into what this president has walked into, and people recognize that.”