Barack Obama's chief strategist grew up loving the political fight while holding to the ideals in the message.By Amanda Paulson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Chicago - 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.
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.