Early last month, a group of Democratic congressmen and women held a meeting in the Capitol in Washington DC to get an update on the campaign to re-elect President Barack Obama.
They had cause to worry. Obama’s first term – and thus many of their own chances of being re-elected – has not been a smooth ride with voters. An ongoing economic crisis, the rise of the Tea Party and the cruel realities of actually governing, not just campaigning, have taken a lot of the shine off 2008′s promise of a new version of JFK’s Camelot.
But leading the charge to reassure the anxious politicians was a familiar, moustached, slightly unkempt figure: Obama’s political guru David Axelrod. Perhaps no one else has been so important to Obama’s career as this veteran strategist and master of Chicago’s famously tough school of street-fighting politics. He signed on when Obama ran for the Senate in 2004, masterminded his historic win in 2008 and remains the president’s senior adviser as he aims to crush Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012.
Axelrod had good news. According to leaks from the closed-door meeting he assured those present that the campaign was ready and willing to pour tens of millions of dollars into negative ads attacking Romney in key states such as Florida, Virginia and Ohio. Indeed, they have already been doing just that. Masterminded by Axelrod, the Obama campaign has been airing brutal attack ad after attack ad. One of its latest efforts featured Romney singing an off-key version of America the Beautiful.
It’s been working too. Last week, a Pew survey showed Romney’s negative ratings have sharply spiked in recent weeks at the same time as Obama’s lead in the polls has steadily widened. With under a 100 days to go until the election, the Romney camp is under sustained assault and the cracks are starting to show.
What a difference four years makes. Gone is hope and change. In its place is a ruthless, hard-charging campaign machine unafraid to use its bare knuckles in the bloody fist fight that the 2012 contest has become. Inspiration has been replaced by perspiration. Hope for the future swapped for dire warnings of what Romney will do to America. Straightforward criticism has been backed up by the pumping out of innuendo and rumour. And behind it all is Axelrod, a man known to Obama’s inner circle simply as “Axe”. It is a fitting name for someone trying to take Romney’s head off.
But the stakes have never been higher. If he loses, Obama will be lambasted as a second Jimmy Carter, a one-term wonder who promised much and failed to deliver. If he wins, then Obama might be free finally to deliver on the giddy promises of four years ago. But behind those factors lies something else. Axelrod, 57, recently told a reporter this race will be his last. “I have one campaign left,” he said. Clearly, by hook or by crook, Axelrod intends to go out on a winning note.
David Axelrod is the latest in a long line of presidential strategy gurus, men who work within the machine of politics like Wizards of Oz behind the curtain. Bush had Karl Rove, Bill Clinton had James “the Ragin’ Cajun” Carville and Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush both had Lee Atwater. These are men for whom politics is more of a knife fight than a battle of ideals. They craft the message, plot tactics, isolate what voters want and try to take down the other side. Their eye seems to be on winning every bit as much as putting forward a particular set of ideals.
Yet Axelrod’s interests in politics began in circumstances that symbolised American idealism. Born into a Jewish family in the solid working-class environs of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town neighbourhood, a five-year-old Axelrod witnessed a rally by President John F Kennedy in New York in 1960.
“I was so taken by the scene and by him and what seemed so important and so magical. That’s what really sort of began to fire my interest in politics and in news,” he once said.
He grew up in a household that encouraged it. His mother, Myril, was a leftwing journalist and his father, Joseph, a psychologist. By his early teens, a young Axelrod was handing out leaflets for JFK’s brother Robert and showing an obsession with all things political. He left school in 1972 and went to the University of Chicago, where he studied political science (and met his future wife, Susan).
He wrote for the local Hyde Park Herald newspaper while still a student, then landed a job at the Chicago Tribune, rising rapidly through the ranks to become the paper’s youngest-ever chief political writer. But from there he jumped ship in a classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper move. In 1984, he signed up as a communications director for Illinois senator Paul Simon. Within a few months, he was Simon’s campaign co-chairman. He never looked back.
Axelrod, who quickly founded a political consultancy, mastered the political scene. He displayed a staggering work ethic and an ability to juggle tasks that made him a formidable asset. Those were skills he took to the White House after 2008, becoming famed for being at his desk at 7am every morning, notorious for placing middle-of-the-night phone calls and for being simultaneously able to eat, speak on the phone and drive. While in Chicago he had helped re-elect the city’s first black mayor and developed a “specialism” in making black politicians more electable with black voters. Which is how he was introduced to Obama in 1992 by a local Democrat impressed with the young activist’s efforts during a voter registration drive.
With his keen eye for future prospects, Axelrod and Obama remained close, even as Axelrod’s business boomed. In fact, so successful had Axelrod become that he actually toyed with the idea of sitting out the 2008 race because five Democratic contenders – Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Chris Dodd and Tom Vilsack – were all past clients. But of course he went with Obama. He had already guided him to his Senate win in 2004 (choosing the outsider Obama over more heavily favoured candidates who wanted him on board) and he believed Obama could make history. He proved himself right, first torching the Democratic establishment backing Clinton and then efficiently dispatching Republican choice, John McCain.
It was a staggering achievement, but Axelrod was rarely ruffled. His style is deceptively ramshackle. His hangdog looks and generally rumpled clothing are coupled with a calm demeanour. He’s hard to ruffle – perhaps borne of his high-octane career or perhaps due to coping with tragedies in his private life (his father committed suicide in 1974 and his eldest daughter suffers from epilepsy).
But either way his stoicism has served him well. He spent three years in the White House as one of the few people who could call on Obama at any time. When the New York Times revealed that the White House had a controversial “kill list” of Islamic terrorist targets, one of the main revelations was that Axelrod sat in on meetings where it was drawn up. But the realities of running the country were not for Axelrod.
Hope and change were never likely to translate too happily into reality. The recession, two foreign wars and a deadlocked political system rapidly disillusioned much of the Democratic base.
Then the Tea Party swept the Republicans to victory in the 2010 mid-terms. By early January 2011, Axelrod was on his way out of Washington, going back to Chicago. He was coming back home in more ways than one. He was doing what he enjoys most – being out on the campaign trail, actively deploying his ruthless hard edge to craft the 2012 re-election effort for Obama.
That strategy is what is playing out now: aggressive, negative and determined to win. Will it work? It is impossible to say. For the moment though, it is paying dividends, eroding support for a Republican challenger who is prone to making gaffes and who lacks charisma.
But, as Axelrod knows, nothing has ever been certain in American politics. Even in 1987, in a Chicago magazine profile that had already dubbed him “Hatchet Man”, Axelrod was musing on the risks and rewards of a negative ad strategy. “Negative media is like radiation therapy,” he said “It’s hard to judge when you’re curing or killing.” He was speaking then about a Senate race. But it holds true now for the current contest to elect the most powerful man in the world.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010