Barack Obama's On-Point Message Man

Consultant David Axelrod with his latest candidate:
Consultant David Axelrod with his latest candidate: "I believe there is nobility in politics. I believe there is great good that can be done." (By Nancy Stone -- Chicago Tribune)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

On Saturday in the Lincolnesque setting of Springfield, Ill., when Barack Obama delivered his full-throated appeal to the ideals of a new generation, a lot of sharp players of the political game thought they detected something Axelrodesque.

All those "Let us" sentences in the middle, as in, "Let us be the generation . . . " -- "That's Axelrod," thought political strategist Donna Brazile.

The clever rhetorical judo of Obama's oft-quoted line, "I know that I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change!" -- "That seemed very classic Axelrod," said David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Nineteen months to the presidential election, and already the campaign has an A-Rod!

He is David Axelrod, a former newspaper reporter who has worked on past campaigns for no fewer than five of the Democrats racing to the White House, a form of political ubiquity that only enhances his reputation. This time, he's with Obama.

A measure of his status in the top tier of Democratic spinners, scripters and fixers is that when his peers detect something subtle and good, they presume Axelrod must have had a hand in it.

Of course Axelrod won't take credit for specific lines. Consultants are supposed to stay in the background. "One thing I came to realize early in the process of working with Barack was, he was always going to be the best writer in the room," Axelrod says. "If you appreciate words and the power of them, he's a wonderful person to work with. . . . I'd say 80 percent of what he did on that platform on Saturday was in that initial draft," which Obama had e-mailed to Axelrod at about 4 a.m. Thursday.

"It's more a matter of riffing back and forth than it is of my delivering any particular piece of this," Axelrod says.

Spoken like a true consultant: Indispensable, invisible.

A candidate's media consultant is the resident storyteller, the finicky language guy, the message masseur. His job is to convey the candidate to the world. Television advertising is still king, but nowadays there are so many channels of presentation, from choreographed speeches and less formal jousting with reporters -- "You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit," scolded Obama -- to Internet pitches designed to make each voter at home in his pajamas feel special.

Campaigns are narratives annotated with policy discursions. Every candidate tells a story about who he is and why he runs. The consultant's job is to take that story and make it so engrossing that the voters won't be able to put it down.

"I wanted to win or lose based on who I am and not some concoction that somebody told me the public wanted," says Deval Patrick, whom Axelrod served in his successful race to become the first African American governor of Massachusetts last year, Patrick's first campaign. "I talked to a lot of different media consultants and so forth who were brought to me by someone who knew there was such a thing as a media consultant. Of all of them, David seemed to me to be the one most determined to respect my commitment to be myself."

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