Obama: Confessions of the Consultant

lelyveld_1-042315.jpg
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,…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.