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Obama Strategy Guru David Axelrod Looks Back at 40 Years in Politics

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 (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

David Axelrod helped mastermind President Obama’s two election campaigns and steered the White House through countless crises as senior advisor. In his new book “Believer,” the former Chicago Tribune political reporter opens up about his career, the challenges of governing and what he calls Obama’s “great, unfulfilled promise” to change Beltway politics as usual.

Interview Highlights

On Thinking Obama Was Not Being Presidential Candidate Material

 "What I said [to him] specifically was 'I don't think you're pathological enough to run for president.' He's an extraordinary ordinary guy. Loves his family, loves being with his family, loves being with his friends, likes watching a football game on TV, and I knew that some of the other folks who'd run, many of whom I had worked with, were gonna pull themselves out of bed at 4:00 in the morning because they had to be president. And as he said, being Barack Obama was a pretty good gig, he didn't have that pathological drive."

On Prepping President Obama to Debate Mitt Romney

"From the beginning we circled October 4th on the calendar in red because the history of presidents in their first presidential debates in a reelection campaign has been very very bad. Presidents tend to falter in those debates because they haven't debated for 4 years, they're not used to having someone on the same level as they are going at them, essentially peer to peer, and they tend to react badly. And so we prepared, we had months of prep for it, but the president was never really into the prep. Like other presidents he was interested in voluminous information to defend his record, and we sent 400-page memos and he'd send back 50-page memos with questions, and in the debate prep itself he was testy. …


David Axelrod, former campaign strategist and senior adviser to President Barack Obama and author of the new memoir "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics"


The president treated [the debate] like a joint press conference and it was a disaster. And we knew it would be a disaster. We had a run through the night before the debate and it was a really bad run through and my colleagues generously designated me to go in and tell the President that and when the President said to me 'Well, I think that went pretty well', I had a choice and I decided I'd better tell him the truth. I told him 'I think we gotta do better tomorrow,' and he stormed out and he used a word directed at me that I'd never heard before or since. It was the sharpest exchange we ever had and I knew it was because he was frustrated because he knew that he wasn't ready. When we got to the arena the next day, he said to David Plouffe, a senior adviser at the time, 'Let's just get this over with and get out of here,' which is not what you want to hear from the president as he's going into his first debate. … it was only after we had an intervention 30 or 24 hours before the second debate that he really got into a groove and got his mojo back."

On Incremental Change

"History is replete with examples of presidents who maneuvered the country forward in ways that involved circuitous routes. People were frustrated that Lincoln didn't sign the Emancipation Proclamation for years. Roosevelt passed a social security bill that basically excluded African Americans because of the way it defined the kind of work that would be covered, but he knew that in the future that would be redressed. He ran in 1940 as sort of an isolationist even as he was plotting how to get America into the war. And so, part of leadership is trying to get the country around to the place where you think it ought to be, and it isn't always a straight line issue."

On Missing Obama

"when I left the White House in 2011, and again after the 2012 campaign, after being in constant touch with him, our interactions became less frequent, more sporadic. And I missed that — I didn't so much miss the action, I missed the central actor, because we weren't just client and adviser, we were also friends and had been going back to the early 90's and I enjoyed our chats. I still do."

On Honor in Politics

“There are some exemplary people in public life and I consider Barack Obama one of them. But, as I said there are people who are motivated by politics as a calling and not a business, or not as an exercise in ego-aggrandizement, who make a big difference, and they have throughout our history. We’ve had low and honorable characters in the history of our politics from the beginning. My goal, I didn’t always achieve it, was to find those people who had those qualities of leadership that I believed in.”

On Why Politics Matter

“I believe that there is something noble about the fact that we, in our country, have the ability to, through the people we elect and the votes we cast, really set a course in history for good or bad. I think about the 2000 election and I talk about it all the time. 527 votes in the state of Florida elected George W. Bush. If 528 people thought that it was worthwhile to come and vote for Gore or that a vote for Nader was a wasted vote and voted for Gore, think how different history might have been. Very likely we wouldn’t have been in Iraq, we wouldn’t have squandered a 2 trillion dollar, 10-year projected surplus, we would be way down the road on climate change, and all because in this vast country, in one state another 528 people didn’t think it was worthwhile [to vote] because they were skeptical or cynical about politics. It matters, this stuff matters.”

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