David Axelrod: architect of Obama's unlikely campaign

Barack Obama's chief strategist grew up loving the political fight while holding to the ideals in the message.

Alex Brandon/AP
Eye to eye: Barack Obama and David Axelrod have run an unconventional campaign. So far, it's been successful.
Jae C.Hong/AP

These days, it's hard to remember a time when Barack Obama wasn't a front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

But last fall, Sen. Obama was down 33 points in one national poll, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the presumptive nominee, and Obama's campaign staff was under enormous pressure to shake things up and try a different tactic.

They didn't.

That decision – to stick to a largely positive message rooted in hope and change, convinced it was the one that would resonate with the public – is due in large part to Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod.

"Barack was the insurgent here, and he won, and that's a testament to Barack and to David, because history is against the insurgent," says Rahm Emanuel, a Democratic congressman from Illinois and a friend of Mr. Axelrod. "These guys decided to double down on 'change' ... They took a gamble that people's attitudes would still be hungry for more of the same."

As political scientists dissect just what happened between last fall and this spring, and how a junior senator with a funny name and little experience on the national stage was able to dethrone the Clintons, much of the credit will likely go to Axelrod – and to what is a pairing of candidate and adviser who are unusually well suited to each other.

He's Obama's answer to Karl Rove, the big-picture architect of the campaign who always seems to have his pulse on what will resonate with voters. But he's also, say colleagues, a rarity among political advisers: someone who still carries the idealism that got him started in the business.

"In a world where cynicism reigns supreme, he's a believer," says David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who got to know Axelrod in 1984 when they were both working on the campaign of former Illinois Senator Paul Simon.

Axelrod cut his political teeth at age 13 as a boy living in Stuyvesant Town when he sold bumper stickers and buttons for Robert Kennedy's campaign.

"The times made people focused on politics, and David in particular," says Robert Swidler, a lawyer in Troy, N.Y., who grew up with Axelrod.

The assassinations of Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr. had a big impact, says Mr. Swidler. "You had to fight against disillusionment and cynicism and becoming angry. David just became committed."

Axelrod moved to Chicago for college, then spent several years as a rising young political reporter at the Chicago Tribune before deciding that he preferred practicing politics to writing about it, leaving to work for Simon's senatorial campaign.

While he's worked for a few "really bad machine hacks" over the years, there have been fewer and fewer of them as Axelrod became established, says Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant and early mentor of Axelrod.

And over the years he's mounted an impressive roster of clients – including Representative Emanuel, Sen. Herb Kohl, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

He has a close relationship with longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a client for 20 years, and he's done campaign work for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, and Sen. Chris Dodd – all vying for the nomination this year. But apparently Axelrod never has believed in a client as much as he does in Obama. "It's one of those things, where you pray for the day when you meet the right candidate and you meet at the right moment, and David Axelrod has done both of those," says Mr. Wilhelm.

Both men are from Chicago, and Axelrod first met Obama 15 years ago when Obama was a 30-year-old community organizer. Their friendship was solidified during Obama's 2004 run for the US Senate. Axelrod ran his campaign despite the fact that Obama was a little-known state senator who seemed to have little chance of beating his well-funded opponents.

Axelrod has a talent for mining his clients' biographies for details that will resonate with voters, and in Obama, he has found a uniquely American story to work with.

"David understands that the candidate himself – the candidate's values, the candidate's story – are what drives the message of the campaign," says Forrest Claypool, a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and Axelrod's partner when he first began a political consulting business. "One of his strengths is to tie the individual story of candidates to the message and values that they're conveying on the campaign trail."

Axelrod doesn't shy away from negative campaigning, and colleagues point to some brutal ones he has run in the past. But in Obama, he sensed that the message that would resonate – and that was most natural to his client – was one that focused on ideals, hope, unity, and change.

Indeed, since Obama announced his candidacy on a frigid Saturday in February of last year – telling the crowd of an "unyielding faith that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it" – that core message has remained largely unchanged. Axelrod "had the initial vision of how this campaign might succeed," says John Kupper, a partner at Axelrod's firm.

"To make this decision to run is a huge personal sacrifice and commitment. Barack didn't want to be out chasing rainbows here," he says. "I think David is the guy who felt that Barack had a winning message and saw the path and put together a team that could help execute that plan."

Still, the success of that message was tested over the months, as Obama continued to trail in the polls and many pushed the campaign to increase attacks on Clinton or to shake up the campaign.

Both observers and those inside the campaign give much of the credit for resisting that pressure not just to Axelrod, but to the team that he and Obama built up.

Many of them had worked together for years, and they were selected in part for their ability to work as a team – starting with David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. Many credit Mr. Plouffe, who is a partner in Axelrod's firm and a longtime friend, with the ultimately successful decision to eschew traditional wisdom and focus on rural and caucus states.

The seamlessness of the operation bore a stark contrast to the constant bickering and shake-ups within the Clinton organization, a far more typical model for presidential campaigns.

"Oftentimes, presidential campaigns are organizations of ill-fitting pieces jammed together by competing power centers," says Mr. Claypool. "That results in rivalries, turf wars, backbiting, intrigue, and drama – all the things missing from this campaign."

Axelrod, Claypool and others say, is a collegial manager who values – and actively seeks out – others' opinions. He's constantly obsessing over whether he got something right and he seeks out countering viewpoints – a trait many say he shares with Obama. The two have meshed well together in other ways as well, including the premium both place on language and the power of words.

Referred to by many in the campaign as "keeper of the message," Axelrod has a knack for honing the phrases and ideas that will resonate with everyday voters – and for anticipating and dealing with attacks.

"He's got what musicians would call perfect pitch," says Mr. Rose. "That's something you can develop, but a great deal of it is inherent."

Emanuel, a close friend who had Axelrod sign the ketubah (the Jewish marriage covenant) at his wedding, remembers his first run for his north Chicago congressional district, when he was criticized as being a wealthy outsider.

Axelrod created an ad with a Chicago policeman endorsing him – revealed at the end of the commercial to be Emanuel's uncle. "One-third of the Chicago police department lives in my district. It grounded me here," says Emanuel.

When Axelrod ran Mayor Daley's first campaign, he anticipated the criticisms that the sometimes awkward Daley wasn't up to the job. He ran an unconventional ad in which Daley told his audience that he might not be the best speaker, but he knew how to lead a city.

"It took away in one fell swoop the most likely line of attack," says Wilhelm.

With Obama's campaign, Axelrod has dealt with several crises – most notably regarding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – and he's now gearing up for an even more brutal fight in the general election.

As a bigger operation, the campaign has had to hire many more people and delegate more decisions, and some worry whether that same collegial dynamic can be maintained. "The circle is expanding, more people are involved, and it becomes an even bigger management challenge," says Mr. Kupper. "But I think we've tried to put a premium on bringing aboard people who we like and respect."

The campaign has already signaled a few unconventional strategies since clinching the nomination, from the decision to campaign seriously in as many as 25 states to the announcement that Obama will give his acceptance speech in Denver's Invesco Field, which can seat more than 70,000 people – a move reminiscent of John F. Kennedy, the last candidate to accept the nomination in a stadium.

It remains to be seen whether the message Obama and Axelrod crafted together will hold up through November, or resonate as well with general election voters as it did in the primary. But observers say the campaign, so far, will go down in history books as a premier example of how an underdog can take on the establishment.

"This was truly a marathon, not a sprint, and I don't think Barack Obama ever really lost a sense of what he was trying to accomplish," says Wilhelm. "I look at Axelrod and the team, and the fact that they were able to persevere and win in the face of the extraordinary challenge represented by Senator Clinton and the national campaign organization that she put on the field as being one of the seminal achievements of modern-day politics."

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