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The Man Who Might Make Obama President

David Axelrod, Barack Obama's closest political adviser, is applying the lessons he learned from Chicago's ugly racialized politics.
 
 
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Given his rhetorical skills, Harvard Law pedigree, up-by-the-bootstraps bio and, well, his race, it is hard not to compare recently elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to his friend Barack Obama. Both men entered crowded primaries in which they were definitively not favored. They both inspired a kind of personal pride among supporters that is rare in politics. On the evening of Obama's convincing primary victory, the crowd and the candidate joined in chanting, "Yes We Can!" and if you listen closely to video of Patrick rallies, you'll hear the crowd chanting the very same thing. When Patrick looked into the camera in one ad and said the state's problem wasn't a "deficit of dollars but a deficit of leadership," it was hard not to hear echoes of Obama's oft-used line that the country's biggest problem isn't a budget deficit but an "empathy deficit." And in Patrick's most effective ad, he stands on a stage delivering an impassioned speech to a crescendo of applause as Obama sits on a stool just behind him, nodding approvingly, his head perfectly framed in the shot.

Which brings us to something else the two men share: David Axelrod, the 51-year-old reporter turned media consultant who was the key media strategist for both men's campaigns. He's the one who wrote those ads, framed that shot and came up with the "Yes We Can" tag line. "I don't bring these messages to candidates," Axelrod says when I point out the similarities. "I look for candidates who exemplify and reflect those messages." In the cases of Obama and Patrick, he says, the work is a collaboration. "They take and improve on what you bring them; they deliver it well because they believe in it. It's like riffing with great musicians."

Even though he lives 1,000 miles from the notoriously clubby world of political consulting, Axelrod has become one of its most successful and respected practitioners. Mark McKinnon, who produced George W. Bush's ads in the last cycle and now works for John McCain, calls Axelrod "the best media guy out there who doesn't have a ring." With his quick wit and knack for soundbites ("The Icon gets hoisted," Axelrod said of the media's treatment of star candidates, "and then it becomes a piñata"), the onetime ChicagoTribune political writer is a favorite of reporters seeking quotes. Charming as he can be with journalists, those who have worked with him say, he can be "aggressive" and "extremely difficult" in the trenches of a campaign. Colleagues point out that he's uncommonly idealistic for someone in his line of work, though a veteran Chicago reporter noted that this has its limits: "He's a principled guy, but he's not a philanthropist. The candidates he's worked for have been well funded, and he's made very good money doing what he does."

Axelrod is known for becoming close to his candidates, and indeed, he has become Obama's closest political adviser, talking strategy daily and producing the two videos recently posted to Obama's website. Reclining in a chair in his Chicago office the week before Obama announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, Axelrod was subdued, seemingly exhausted, but intense and hyperarticulate. Like Obama he speaks with what can seem a refreshing frankness, though just a few hours later, going over my notes, it was clear that he had remained scrupulously on message.

Axelrod's firm, AKP Media, which he runs with his partners John Kupper and David Plouffe, has handled a series of high-profile national and state campaigns, from John Edwards's 2004 presidential run to Tom Vilsack's and Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial races; but for much of its two decades the firm's bread and butter has been mayoral races, with a particularly strong track record in electing black candidates. Indeed, ever since working on the re-election campaign of Chicago's Harold Washington in 1987, Axelrod has developed something of a novel niche for a political consultant: helping black politicians convince white voters to support them. With Obama's bid for the presidency, Axelrod's skill in this area will face the ultimate test.

Born on New York's Lower East Side, Axelrod grew up in a middle-class Jewish household and showed a passion for politics early: At age 10 he was shuffling around his housing complex with a cardboard box filled with John Lindsay-for-mayor literature. He enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1972, lured by Chicago's storied politics, and resolved to become a "newspaperman." Upon graduating he was hired by the Tribune, and having just lost his father to suicide, he turned to the paper as a surrogate family. "I was a young kid," he says, "just making my way in the world, and the Tribune adopted me."

Axelrod was something of a journalistic prodigy, rising to become city hall bureau chief and political columnist at the ripe old age of 27. Then in 1984, he left it behind to join the campaign of Paul Simon, the bow-tied intellectual mounting an improbable run for US Senate. Though he joined the campaign as communications director, within weeks Axelrod was promoted to co-campaign manager. "We were too dumb to quit," says David Wilhelm, who co-piloted the campaign and would go on to become DNC head in Clinton's first year in office. "It helped that we were so idealistic. One of the things about David Axelrod -- I have certainly talked to clients about this -- one of the reasons he's so successful is that he is a believer. At the end of the day, he's an idealist. He actually cares about his candidates and their positions on issues. While he can be caustic, he is not a cynic."

When the campaign was done, Axelrod and Forest Claypool, one of his deputies from the campaign, opened their own consulting shop, handling mostly long-shot candidates until 1987, when Chicago Mayor Harold Washington hired the firm to help with his re-election. Four years earlier, Washington had won a historic victory, defeating the machine-backed incumbent, Jane Byrne, to become the city's first black mayor. As the Tribune's city hall bureau chief, Axelrod had ringside seats. "Nineteen eighty-three, that was a phenomenal election. Harold Washington -- extraordinary guy. I mean, he was the most kinetic campaigner and politician that I've ever met. It was inspiring the way the African-American community came alive around the prospect of electing Harold. There were those who mistook that for a negative [campaign], but it was one of the most positive campaigns I've ever seen, because people felt empowered."

But if the campaign was positive, the reaction from white Chicago was not. In 1966, when Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago to campaign for housing desegregation, he was met with jeers of "Martin Luther Coon" and bricks thrown at his head. It prompted King to observe that people from Mississippi should move to Chicago to "learn how to hate." Seventeen years later, during the Washington campaign, that same ugly side of the city was on full display. Washington was heckled and threatened. Opponents passed out buttons with pictures of watermelons, and Bernard Epton, Washington's white Republican opponent, adopted the slogan "Before It's Too Late." After Washington won, it arguably got worse. The white machine alderman who opposed the Mayor formed a bloc in the City Council that did everything it could to undercut and humiliate him. The "council wars," as the ongoing battle became known, came to embody city politics at its worst: racial civil war fought by parliamentary means. "The city was paralyzed," Axelrod says. "The media called it 'Beirut on the lake.'"

But Mayor Washington was extremely popular among the city's African-American population, and the pettiness of the council wars cemented his support among white liberals, paving the way for his re-election in 1987. "I remember sitting with Harold on the morning after he won the primary," Axelrod recalls with a wistful smile. "He turned to us and asked, 'What percentage of the white vote did I get?' We told him it was 20 percent, and we were happy, because four years earlier he'd gotten only 8 percent." But Washington pointed out that he'd spent 70 to 80 percent of his time during the campaign in white neighborhoods. "He kind of smiled wanly," says Axelrod, "and said, 'Ain't it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave,' and then he went out to give one of the most joyous and rollicking and brilliant press conferences I'd ever seen."

While Axelrod would work on Paul Simon's presidential campaign a year later and branch out from Chicago to state and federal races across the country, he developed a specialty in black mayoral races, working for candidates like Dennis Archer in Detroit, Michael White in Cleveland, Anthony Williams in DC, Lee Brown in Houston and John Street in Philadelphia. Now, as Axelrod prepares to try to persuade nonblack Americans to elect a black man President, it's clear the experience of Harold Washington was a defining moment in the formation of his political consciousness. When he talks about the brutally negative race run by Deval Patrick's opponent, he says offhandedly, "We haven't seen anything like it since Bernie Epton."

Axelrod sees Obama, who was working in Chicago as a community organizer during the Washington years, as a marker of progress, writing the second act of a story that Washington started. "In 1983, after Harold won the primary, he went to the northwest side of Chicago with Walter Mondale. They went to a place called St. Pascal's Catholic Church. And what ensued there was so ugly -- the protests -- that it became a national story. Twenty-one years later, when Barack ran for the US Senate in the primary against six very strong candidates, he carried every ward on the northwest side except one, and carried the ward that St. Pascal's is in, and I think even the precinct. That's what he was thinking about on primary night. I was thinking, and I told Barack, that Harold Washington is smiling down on us."

What Obama and Washington shared, Axelrod points out -- a trait common to many of the successful black candidates he has worked for -- is the direct, lived experience of the effects of injustice with a simultaneous faith that the injustice wasn't permanent, that it could be overcome. "In many cases their personal stories are symbolic of the kinds of values that we as a society hold dear even if we haven't always honored them historically," Axelrod says. "The notion that you can overcome great obstacles -- [they're] very hopeful figures, and I think that made them very potent politically. They've seen the obstacles and the barriers and they've also overcome them: It shows the work we have to do and the possibility that that work can get done, that you can work for a better future." In other words: They make people feel good about how far we've come.

If the Obama message can be distilled to a single word, it is "hope." It's in the title of his new book (The Audacity of Hope) and the name of his PAC (Hopefund). If you page back through Axelrod's work, it's a word that shows up a lot. All politics traffics in clichés, and hope certainly isn't a new one (Bill Clinton: The Man From Hope), but there's a specific resonance to the concept in post-9/11, mid-Iraq War America. The experience of 9/11 gave Americans a feeling of national solidarity that the country probably hadn't experienced since World War II. Those melancholy days served as a kind of time warp, or glimpse, perhaps, of a future public life without the culture wars: one without wedge issues and the quasi-tribal red-blue divisions. Of course, that unity was all too quickly leveraged to pursue a radically militaristic course of action, but that brief taste has left many Americans wanting more. This is what the Axelrod-Obama brain trust has intuited, and what the Obama campaign holds out as its promise: "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," Obama said during his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote. "But I've got news for them, too: We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Obama, having grown up stretched across the trenches of the culture wars -- black and white, secular and religious, poor neighborhoods and the Ivy League, heartland and the coasts -- seems to feel at a gut level the discomfort many Americans have with the culture wars' rituals. In The Audacity of Hope he writes about how the political battles of today can seem rooted in "old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago." And Axelrod, veteran of Chicago's ugly racialized battles, also seems to have a profound understanding of people's yearning for a politics that is somehow less petty and rancorous. Together they have crafted a potent message that speaks to this.

The question is whether a politics free of acrimony can deliver the promise of progress. When I asked Axelrod how he went from working for Washington to working for his erstwhile foe, Mayor Daley, just two years later, he defended it this way: "He reduced the acrimony and became a unifying force, and that was really significant." Of course, in that case the "acrimony" came from the fierce resistance to change, and a return to a more placid politics only came with the monarchical restoration of the king's eldest son.

The hope for a politics of consensus is hardly new. It is the hope embodied in the plaintive, exasperated question asked by Rodney King during America's last spasm of racialized violence: "Can't we all get along?" Axelrod and Obama call it "a new kind of politics," and in their imagining it is a rerun of the Washington race, but this time the empowerment can be shared across the racial divide. This time, there won't be epithets or spit hurled at the candidate. Politics without division; progress without anyone's interests being threatened.

But consensus is a tricky business. Recently the website obamatruth.org mysteriously appeared, featuring a slick three-minute video hit-piece intended to make Obama out to be a money-grubbing, uppity sellout. "In his lust for personal wealth," the site asks, "has Barack Obama sold his moral compass?" Though the site doesn't offer any clues as to its provenance, it is registered to one Joe Novak, a Republican opposition researcher and dirty trickster who during the last election cycle produced a series of notorious negative ads aired on black commercial radio. Axelrod knows Novak well. Back in the 1980s, Novak got his start as a hatchet man for none other than Ed Vrdolyak, the white alderman who was Harold Washington's chief nemesis. Vrdolyak affectionately referred to him as "Low Blow Joe." As Washington learned, as interested as you might be in unity, your enemies get a vote, too.

Christopher Hayes is a contributing editor of In These Times and the Chicago editor of Just Cause magazine.

 
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