The man behind Obama’s message

NAVIGATOR: Axelrod, right, and Obama on the campaign bus in Iowa, a day before victory in the caucuses there shook assumptions about the presidential race.
NAVIGATOR: Axelrod, right, and Obama on the campaign bus in Iowa, a day before victory in the caucuses there shook assumptions about the presidential race.
(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Sen. Barack Obama strode into a hotel ballroom filled with expectation one recent Tuesday and declared that his quest for the Oval Office, which “began as a whisper in Springfield, has swelled to a chorus of millions calling for change.”

That’s the essence of the Illinois senator’s message: Obama equals change; Hillary Rodham Clinton equals status quo. All else cascades from there. In this contest -- where the candidates are but a micron apart on most policy matters -- message is everything.

This simple theme has powered Obama to victory in 23 contests, most recently three days ago during the “Potomac primaries,” when he added Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to his win list.


The keeper of that message is David Axelrod, political reporter turned political consultant, and Obama’s chief strategist.

The burly 52-year-old with the drooping mustache helped put together the team working to get Obama elected. He oversees ad creation and coordinates with the campaign’s pollsters. During preparation for debates, he plays Clinton.

When not at Obama’s side on the campaign trail, he is most often in front of a television camera or otherwise surrounded by reporters, talking about the man he calls “my friend.” Asked point-blank what he does all day, he recently responded: “Schmooze.”

Axelrod is described as Obama’s answer to Karl Rove and the most powerful political consultant not on a coast. And at a time when New York Sen. Clinton is shaking up her own campaign staff, he is someone, said one political observer, who “ain’t going to be fired.”

On Super Tuesday -- arguably the most critical day of Obama’s yearlong journey, with 22 states up for grabs -- Axelrod was a mix of sweet nostalgia and sharp elbows.

9:30 p.m. CST: “I got into politics because I believe in idealism. Just to be a part of this effort that seems to be rekindling the kind of idealism that I knew when I was a kid, it’s a great thing to do. So I find myself getting very emotional about it.”


11:30 p.m., declaring victory in the face of a draw: “What was once inevitable is no longer inevitable.”

Asked about Clinton campaign staffers’ claims that their candidate would do well in the upcoming contests in Pennsylvania and Texas: “They also said that the campaign’s going to end tonight.”

Fifteen years ago, David Axelrod was a political consultant based in Chicago, where Barack Obama, fresh from Harvard Law School and largely unknown, was coordinating a voter registration drive. One day Axelrod got a call from a friend.

“She said, ‘I just met the most extraordinary person,’ ” he recounted. “ ‘I think he may be the president of the United States one day.’ And I thought, ‘That’s kind of a grandiose thing to say.’ ”

The men met and became friendly. When Axelrod heard in 2002 that Obama was considering a Senate run, he thought, “What a difference he could make.”

“There was not an African American in the U.S. Senate, and there were very few people of his caliber,” Axelrod recounted. “He was not a front-runner at that point. He was quite the underdog. But I told him I wanted to work with him.”


Axelrod describes that collaboration as “a great adventure,” in which a little-known state senator “overcame all kinds of obstacles and all kinds of odds. I was proud of him then. I was proud of him as a public official.”

Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, said Axelrod and Obama emerged from that hard-fought race with a unique relationship.

“A lot of times, consultants don’t know the clients that well and aren’t plugged into their particular political philosophy or vision,” Carrick said, but “this tight bond they have makes them effective together.”

Axelrod raised eyebrows in liberal circles for working on the mayoral campaign of Democrat Richard M. Daley, son of the man who brand-named Chicago’s political machine, but his client list generally runs to progressive Democratic candidates. Obama was a natural fit.

He had left the Chicago Tribune in 1984 to manage the Senate campaign of Paul Simon, then a socially liberal Illinois congressman.

As a political writer, Axelrod covered Harold Washington’s run to become the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983; four years later, he worked on Washington’s successful reelection effort. He was part of Deval Patrick’s successful 2006 campaign to become the first black governor of Massachusetts. Today, Patrick stumps for Obama.


At one point or another, Axelrod worked for five of the eight candidates for 2008 Democratic nominee. He was part of John Edwards’ White House bid four years ago, and he helped get Tom Vilsack elected -- and reelected -- as the first Democratic governor of Iowa in 30 years. He has worked for Clinton and Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, both of whom -- along with Edwards, Obama and Clinton’s husband -- have returned the favor, pitching in for a cause close to Axelrod’s heart: raising money for an epilepsy cure.

Axelrod’s daughter Lauren, who is in her mid-20s, lives in a group home because of brain damage sustained in a lifetime of seizures. A decade ago, his wife, Susan, helped found Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy. Axelrod is an honorary member of CURE’s advisory board.

On Feb. 29, five days before voters in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont go to the polls to distribute a total of 444 delegates, he will be honored by CURE at its 10th annual benefit in Chicago “for giving voice to the over 3 million Americans suffering from epilepsy.”

That is Axelrod’s softer side. In politics, he can have a harder edge.

“In this town, when he did Harold Washington, he could very much throw a punch back politically at Harold Washington’s opponents,” said Bill Daley, part of Chicago’s political first family and a longtime friend.

“There was a lot of tension, a lot of back-and-forth,” Daley said. “David was very good at negative commercials. But David understands that this campaign is not about that, and Barack Obama is not that candidate.”

The Obama staff is reluctant to divulge details of how the campaign operates day to day.

But longtime Axelrod friends and colleagues are quick to point where they see the strategist’s hand in Obama’s effort.


Chicago political consultant Don Rose describes his former protege as “a bright guy, knows politics, can write a good sentence with a subject, an object and a verb.”

Rose is sure that Axelrod was the brains behind one of Obama’s best lines.

During a heated debate in New Hampshire, Clinton slammed Obama for raising “false hopes” in the American electorate with his message of hope and change.

The next day, Obama shot back in a riff that he still uses. It usually ends something like this, a version delivered at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H.:

“What does that mean, false hopes?” he asked, incredulous. “How have we made progress in this country?

“Did John F. Kennedy look at the moon and say, ‘Ah, thought so, too far. Reality check. Can’t do it’?

“Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out over that magnificent crowd, the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument. ‘Sorry guys. False hope. This dream thing is a false hope. We can’t expect equality.’


“False hopes,” he snorted, and the crowd went wild.

Axelrod does take credit for the speech Obama delivered in 2006 at the Gridiron Club dinner, an annual send-up of politics and journalism by the very people who make that world run.

Standing not far from Dick Cheney -- who had accidentally shot a lawyer friend on a hunting trip -- Obama told the vice president, “I know you came here expecting to be a target, which, it turns out, may prove easier for you than shooting at one.”

Then he thanked the Democratic nemesis, saying: “For years we Democrats have succeeded in doing little more than shooting ourselves in the foot. You taught us a valuable lesson: Aim higher.”

In his next life, Axelrod acknowledged to a friend over drinks that night, he might like to be a joke writer. For now, however, he is keeping his day job.