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Obama: Confessions of the Consultant

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Charles Ommanney/Getty Images
Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, at the Democratic National Convention, Denver, August 2008. Joe Biden is at left.

In a debate before the 2008 New Hampshire primary, the suddenly embattled Hillary Clinton—finally recognizing the threat posed to her candidacy by the upstart junior senator from Illinois—had something to say about the stirring promises of transformative post-partisan change he’d been making. She said she’d been fighting for change all her life in politics but cautioned: “We don’t need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered.”

David Axelrod, the Chicago political consultant who orchestrated the themes of Barack Obama’s campaign and coined its rapturous slogan “Yes We Can,” immediately pounced on the dose of dour realism Clinton had just delivered. “I recognized the opportunity that Hillary had handed us,” he writes in his readable memoir of his life in politics. “She was too much a part of the system in Washington ever to change it—and without changing the politics of Washington, real solutions to big problems would never come.”

The consultant might have called his book Confession rather than Believer, for elsewhere, when he’s not in campaign mode, he all but acknowledges that raising false hopes was his business, that it had a lot to do with the outcome he proudly—and, many would still say, justly—celebrates. A little more than a year into the first Obama term, with the economy still hemorrhaging jobs, Axelrod finds himself in the West Wing thinking back to those heady campaign days. “Obama had been elected promising something more ambitious, a wholesale change in our political culture—and by this measure he was failing,” he reflects. “The country was no less divided.”

Facing Obama’s reelection campaign several years later he again uses the F word (“failure”). Polling data tell him that “the president’s failure to tame Washington and build bipartisan bridges was the most often-stated disappointment among the movable independent voters who had decisively tilted his way in 2008.” Finally, veering further in a confessional direction after he has stepped back from an active role, he concludes that Obama’s initial victory, seeming to justify his claim of a mandate for change, had “touched off such a ferocious counterreaction that it wound up only exacerbating the problem.” Not everyone, it turns out, was cheering when the president-elect proclaimed on that thrilling election night: “Change has come to America.”

For Clinton in 2015—again the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination, on what this time around remains an empty field—there may be a lesson here worth pondering. It’s not to beware of raising false hopes. It’s to remember that hope, once ignited, is likely to roll over gritty, hard-earned realism. Clearly she was right seven years ago about the prospects for transcending partisan warfare in Washington, but her challenger won the nomination and election, only to be stunned at the outset of his administration when his landmark American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aimed at heading off a second Great Depression, passed the House of Representatives without a single Republican vote in its favor.

That was a preview of the furious, scorched-earth legislative tactics Republicans have pursued these last six years in their campaign to undermine, even delegitimize a president who just happens to be the first non-white in the office. By their own count, the House has now voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act sixty-seven times. (Democrats say it has only been fifty-six times.) Contrasted with their most recent affront—the reckless letter sent by forty-seven Republican senators to Iranian leaders calling into question President Obama’s authority to conclude an agreement that might effectively freeze or stall Iran’s nuclear bomb–building programs for ten or more years—those futile Obamacare votes were playacting.

The possibility of united, determined obstruction never intruded on the scenario of the “new, inclusive politics” sketched by the consultant and his “once-in-a-lifetime client” back when Obama was still a member of the Illinois legislature running for a Senate seat. In those days, he preached that we were all one people, not residents of red states and blue states; he still does, but the number of red states has risen while his approval ratings have drooped.

Of course, such crude political sums and subtractions amount to something less than a reliable verdict on the Obama presidency as a whole. David Axelrod, who was a White House insider for only the first two years, draws a persuasive picture of a president more deeply engaged in stepping up to the big issues as “the decider” (to revive a tag favored by his predecessor, the second Bush) than tracking the politics of his decisions. Few of those decisions, Axelrod finally argues, “would satisfy the politics of the moment. But at home and abroad, Obama was playing a longer game.”

Trying to, at least. Early on the new president discovered there was more to the job than making careful, commonsense decisions. There’s also the need to foresee the obstacles that may be put in a president’s way, not always by political foes. Obama publicly declared that managers of the tottering insurance behemoth AIG should not be paid rich bonuses out of federal bailout funds, only to discover that his treasury secretary and chief economic adviser, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, had already intervened on the other side. He could repudiate his advisers in the midst of the crisis—an option he never considered—or pay the bonuses and the political cost that went with them. The bonuses were paid.

“You know, I love this job,” Obama tells Axelrod in those dark days. “I love diving into problems. But dealing with some of the people you have to deal with and the whole cable thing wears you out.”

A short time later, Axelrod, along with the then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, counseled against a presidential decision to go flat out for a health care act that would include a mandate (penalizing those who don’t sign up)—a provision Hillary Clinton had supported and Obama had opposed during the primaries, not on principle but to reap a political advantage. “What are we going to do?” he has Obama now saying in a private conversation. “Are we going to put our approval ratings on the shelf and admire them for eight years? Or are we going to spend down on them and try to get some important things done for the future?” Axelrod the memoirist writes of the adviser whose advice was being rejected: “Half of me wanted to stand up and cheer.”

The other half of him, he later explains, knew that Obama could pay a steep political price. Contemplating the fast-spreading Tea Party protest, he finds evidence of “a truth we were loath to acknowledge publicly,” which was that some of the anger was rooted in race, in “the idea of the black man with the Muslim name in the White House” arranging “just another giveaway to poor black people at their expense.”

On the night the Affordable Care Act finally passes, the consultant sits alone in his White House office and cries. “Not little sniffles,” so he says, “but big, heaving sobs.” He writes that he was thinking of all the sacrifices he and his wife had made to assure treatment for their epileptic daughter. Obama, who’d promised bipartisanship, had shown himself ready to make distasteful deals, to bargain and implore, and had finally “jammed the law through on a straight party-line vote,” risking his standing with “moderate, swing voters.”

The consultant then wrings out his story for maximum effect. As he tells it, he walked across the hall and thanked the president on behalf of his family and others in similar predicaments. He recalls Obama responding, “That’s why we do the work.”

At other times the president’s focus on “the work,” on the command of detail it demands, gets in the way of leadership, his own ability to sell his programs. He could look slightly put upon, impatient to get back to his desk, in his rare White House press conferences. Some of that air of preoccupation carried over into his first debate in 2012 with a well-primed, bright-eyed, thoroughly rehearsed Mitt Romney. Axelrod had warned Obama the previous evening after his own rehearsal that he was speaking as if by rote, not connecting, missing his opportunities. His scribbled notes to himself on his candidate’s performance come across on paper as groans. “Wonkfest,” one said. “No humanity,” said another, shorthand for a flunking grade for not connecting to real concerns of real people. A president gets unused to bad reviews from his inner circle. “No drama” Obama threw a small, uncharacteristic fit that night, tossing off trash talk as he stormed out through double doors. (“Motherfucker’s never happy” is what Axelrod heard.) Surveys the night of the actual debate confirmed the consultant’s forebodings.

Before the second debate, the top campaign advisers staged what one described as “an intervention” with the president. Axelrod spoke for the group. His pep talk belongs in texts on political campaigns in general, presidential campaigns in particular. “You’re treating this like it’s all on the level,” he recalls himself saying. “It’s not a trial or even a real debate. This is a performance. Romney understood that. He was delivering lines. You were answering questions. I know it’s a galling process, but it is what it is.”

It is what it is. Coming from a faithful, self-styled “believer,” the words may register as cynical. But anyone can recognize the reality they describe. Obama was reelected to a second term by a decisive margin for various reasons. An important one is that he learned his lines, allowing his handlers to drill him over and over again until, to paraphrase one of them, they “locked in.” He was no longer “disdainful of the artifice the process demanded of him.” He suspended his disbelief so we could suspend ours.

The rough experience of gearing a proud and unbending president up for the 2012 debates leads the memoirist to reflect back on his one reservation about his friend and candidate at the outset of their long-shot quest for the White House. “My main concern,” he said then, “is that you’re not obsessive enough to run for president.” (Or words to that effect. Like many memoir writers, Axelrod has the preternatural knack of summoning up whole conversations word-for-word as if he taped them.) Putting the same thought another way, he recalls saying, “You may be too normal.” Agreeing, Obama said, so we’re told, that he didn’t “need to be president.” He then makes a singularly immodest, ultimately prescient pledge: “If I get in, I’m not getting in to lose. I’m going to do what’s necessary.” And he does, accepting inconvenient speaking gigs in likely swing states, piling up political debts, vanishing from his Chicago home and family for the better part of a year, patiently schooling himself to appear engrossed in the views of well-heeled, potential donors. It turns out that he’s obsessive enough, driven and self-disciplined, not too normal at all.

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David Axelrod and Barack Obama backstage before a town hall meeting in Erie, Pennsylvania, during the presidential campaign, April 2008

In truth, he was moving faster than his advisers. Before he had completed his second year in Washington as a senator, Axelrod recognized, “Barack was positioning himself to seize the moment if and when it came.” An early tip-off that he was serious on more than one level came in 2005, his first year in the Senate, in a discussion with his consultant and chief of staff on which way to vote on the nomination of John Roberts for chief justice. His initial inclination was to vote to confirm. “If I become president someday,” he said, not bothering to be coy, “I don’t want to see my own, qualified nominees for the Court shot down because of ideology.” Equally telling was his actual vote. He became one of twenty-two Democrats to vote no.

This brings us back to the question of what the eponymous “Believer” actually believed. Axelrod’s riffs on that question carry him back to the 1960s and the campaigns of John Kennedy, whom he viewed at the age of five on a campaign stop near Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, and, more especially, Bobby Kennedy, who died when our author was thirteen. What he believes in, as he expresses it here, is not any particular program but a campaign and candidate who can stir the idealism of youth (“a healing figure” offering “a chance to end the wars, both abroad and in Washington, and lift the nation’s sights toward higher goals”).

He then sits down to write the freshman senator a memo, practically a mash note, that’s almost embarrassing in its jejune fervor, which we may assume to be genuine. He quotes it at length. Here’s a taste:

Voters are primed to turn the page and choose a candidate who offers an inspiring, inclusive, confident and HOPEFUL vision for America in the 21st Century. They want to believe again in themselves, their country and their future. They want to believe again in America’s exceptionalism, of which you are both a champion and a reflection. For all these reasons, you are uniquely suited for these times.

On both sides of the political divide, there are obviously operatives and voters receptive to or touched by this kind of ardor. They turn up at political rallies. But most voters don’t go to rallies. They watch them on TV with a measure of skepticism, if they watch them at all. They’re not “primed” to view their exercise of the franchise as a religious experience. Habit, economic circumstances, loyalties and biases of various kinds, anger as well as faith, not to mention attention spans that may be measured in seconds, all enter into their voting decisions. One can imagine Ronald Reagan receiving a memo in the same tone and words. That goes too for most of this year’s crop of Republican candidates. It’s harder to imagine what went through the mind of Barack Obama, a more subtle thinker, or so we’ve come to believe, when it landed in his inbox. Clearly it was not a turnoff.

We’ll have to wait for his memoir to find out. If it’s as evasive and defensive as most presidential memoirs, we never will. This president has shown himself to be a gifted writer so there’s reason to hope he’ll go deeper than his predecessors. If he’s serious about more than a big payday and preserving whatever it is the overused word “legacy” is supposed to represent, it’s not inconceivable that he’ll run the risk of candor and self-discovery, which is to say write like a truth-seeking writer and not a politician. The result could be the best presidential memoir we’ve had. (Yes, Ulysses S. Grant wrote a great one but he never got to his White House years.)

In his consultant’s rendering, the strongest suggestion of what Obama might say comes in the response he gave when his wife Michelle challenged him to tell what he could contribute that other capable candidates couldn’t:

The day I raise my hand to take that oath of office as president of the United States, the world will look at us differently, and millions of kids—black kids, Hispanic kids—will look at themselves differently.

Axelrod tells us that the soon-to-be candidate lifted his right hand as he said this.

The world was impressed, for a time, but not as impressed as the new president and his advisers had apparently allowed themselves to expect. Foreign policy was not David Axelrod’s portfolio but he traveled abroad with Obama in 2008 when, as a candidate, he made a quick tour of the Middle East and delivered a speech to a large crowd in Berlin’s Tiergarten calling for a new spirit of collaboration among nations. Implicit in it was an underlying assumption that his election might be a turning point in world affairs. The only thing that was really new in the speech was Obama himself. Turns out that wasn’t enough:

In time, the challenge of overcoming ancient rivalries, of rising above parochial political concerns and advancing democracy in places with no history or institutions to support it, would prove far more daunting than we had hoped or imagined on that glorious day in Berlin.

Axelrod now acknowledges: “Stubborn realities would intrude.” Oh dear. How did that happen?

When he reflects on the new president’s trip to the Middle East in June 2009, Axelrod slips back into the same sorrowful tone and language in recounting the failure of the region to embrace the politics of hope. Once again we hear about “ancient rivalries,” this time between Sunni and Shia, Arab and Jew, “that would not yield to his charm, gestures, or persistence.” The highlight of the trip for Obama was a speech in Cairo in which he’d invested high hopes and much time, according to Axelrod, who accompanied him. “I’ve come here to Cairo,” the address said, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

As we’ve since seen, there was no new beginning, just as there had been none after a similar—if anything, stronger—speech on the topic of democracy delivered in Cairo by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice four years earlier. Axelrod wafts a halfhearted intuition that Obama’s speech may have inspired some demonstrators in the Arab Spring two years later, only to acknowledge that the Arab Spring in Egypt helped beget a traditionalist backlash at the polls led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which begat a severely repressive military regime, with which the Obama administration is now gradually mending fences.

The president’s reflections on this cycle of events should be another fascinating part of his memoir, whenever it appears. It will presumably be before the next high American officeholder gives a speech on democracy and new beginnings in Cairo.

In any future Obama memoir we may also hope to learn more about his thinking on various national security issues and personnel than has been forthcoming so far—his early decision against calling for an independent commission’s review of Bush administration officials who licensed torture in their ballyhooed war on terror; his thoughts about Senate Democrats who deserted him on the issue of closing the Guantánamo prison; the revolving door between the National Security Agency and private contracting firms; the long struggle between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over the committee’s report on torture and why no one at the agency was held accountable for hacking into the committee’s files; the use of drones on the frontier of Pakistan and beyond; how he came to rely on John Brennan, now director of central intelligence, for guidance on such issues… The list can be extended.

David Axelrod wasn’t consulted on such matters but he repeats a striking passage from a conversation President Obama had early on, back in 2009, that may foreshadow the approach he’ll take in a memoir. The meeting was with a group of civil liberties lawyers who’d come to the White House to discuss the issue of preventive detention. “We have different roles,” he said.

You represent clients and you are doing exactly what you should. I am the president of the United States, with the responsibility to protect the American people. Do we just release them and take the chance they blow you up? There’s only so much a democracy can bear.

The obvious subtext is an abiding concern about the pressures that might erupt in the aftermath of another big attack to again loosen restraints on all the practitioners of counterterrorism, on surveillance, preventive detention, even torture.

Axelrod the Believer viewed the 2008 campaign as “the triumph of politics as it should be.” Ever HOPEFUL, he’s now at the University of Chicago, urging young people to “grab the wheel of history and steer us to a better place.”

That’s how he ends his book, which may inspire some young people as in love with politics and as idealistic as he tells us he was. It seems churlish to point out that it’s not only in the Middle East that “ancient rivalries” and “stubborn realities” intrude; to wonder, for instance, how much youthful idealism it will now take to do something about the Citizens United decision, the Koch brothers, all the other billionaires who feel entitled to thrust their weighty thumbs on the political scales, the K Street lobbying legions flocking to congressional fund-raisers, the various manifestations of money politics that have festered—no fault of Obama’s—since “politics as it should be” brought “change” to Washington.