David Axelrod is a giant among Spin Merchants and Political Communicators. Renowned as Barack Obama’s ‘Keeper of the Flame’, ‘Axe’ has put his life thus far to words in ‘Believer – 40 Years in Politics’. For any student and observer of American Politics, this is to be welcomed. Republicans will hate this – it’s a take on how Progressives can win elections if they’re prepared not to be ‘Swift-Boated’; ‘Axe’ loves a good fight.
Have a close up look at David Axelrod’s heart and you’ll see Chicago written all over it. The ‘Windy City’ is painted as a maddening, addictive, corrupt, idealistic place where politics can be brutal. ‘Axe’ grounded his skills as a Political Reporter in the Chicago Tribune. He writes movingly of his mother and father, an accomplished journalist/focus group pioneer and psychotherapist respectively. He barely graduated from the University of Chicago; he was spending so much time as a cub reporter. There is tragedy in his 20s when his father commits suicide. But instead of this breaking him, Axelrod somehow drew on his depths of resilience to start his climb in the Political Consultancy World. It was a journey that would take him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And what a business to be in. Axelrod writes of the need for a candidate to be fundamentally sound; they must believe in something at their core. He rejects the notion of the Svengali, despite his own success, he can only do so much with the raw material he’s working with. He has some rough words for John Edwards and other candidates he believes didn’t hit the mark. He nearly got the senior gig in the Gore 2000 campaign; who knows how History may have been different if Axelrod had decided not to sit this one out (due to his daughter Lauren having a particularly acute form of epilepsy). His wife Susan is credited as a rock, providing balance and grounding throughout his high-adrenaline career.
The Obama-Biden 08 Campaign must rank as one of the greatest political campaigns in US Presidential History. A freshman Senator, up against essentially both the Clintons and a start-up beginning with nothing and raising hundreds of millions of dollars went on to win an epic political slugfest. Perhaps Axelrod saw Obama as a kindred spirit; a Progressive with edge, standing up for Main Street America and willing to be bold to achieve his goals. Only Barack Obama could have made such a commanding speech on Race as the Rev Wright controversy at one stage threatened to derail the campaign. Axelrod writes with a great sense of flair and pride about the time when Hope did seem to have won out over Fear.
But then we arrive at the famous Mario Cuomo maxim; we campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The First Obama Administration was a bruising Reality Check to the President’s belief that a bi-partisan approach could work in Washington. The Health Care victory and saving the US Economy from possible Depression are two enormous achievements but Team Obama had to fight tooth and nail for even small victories. The scorched earth strategy adopted by the Republicans, particularly after the rise of the Tea Party, meant that every compromise Obama was forced into was seen by his Left political base as folding in to GOP demands. Axelrod brings us into the White House tensions and triumphs. We get a fine sense of the sheer demands put on anyone working in the West Wing. Obama has many qualities, but he is only human and while ‘Axe’ shows the Commander-in-Chief to be mostly in control, he shows how even the great Calm One is prone to frustration when he is unable to steer events his way
Axelrod is on more comfortable ground discussing the 2012 campaign, where he was re-activated as Chief Strategist. This was a much more difficult call than 2008; the economy was barely recovering and Obama did not have the usual incumbent advantages. So while the Democrats campaigned on the electoral maths, they were fortunate to have an opponent who was a cartoon Rich Guy. Romney became the gift that kept giving; the ‘Mother Jones’ scoop on his deriding 47% of the American population as slackers was particularly totemic. Here was Mitt among his wealthy backers saying what he really thought and it was alarming. ‘Axe’ was careful to stroke the party base in 2012; play to the Centre but tilt to the Left. The strategy was brilliantly executed with Obama running out a comfortable winner, much to the shock of the Romneyites.
Axelrod’s autobiography is an excellent account of how elections are won and lost. While it’s undoubtedly extremely tough and sometime rough at the top in his chosen profession, he shows that the ‘Spindoctors’ who try to control the gears, engine and steering of modern campaigning are as important as the candidate with the message. But the candidate must have a message and ‘Axe’s President spoke clearly to the American people in 2008 and 2012. President Obama owes Axelrod no small amount of thanks for his electoral success.
‘Believer – My Forty Years in Politics’ – David Axelrod, Penguin Press, pp 490