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The Player at Bat
David Axelrod, the Man With Obama's Game Plan, Is Also the Candidate's No. 1 Fan

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

CHICAGO

David Axelrod first showed signs of chronic fan syndrome in the early 1960s in his native New York City. The initial symptom involved baseball. His dad had recently allowed the New York Mets (born 1962) to occupy the place in his heart long filled by the New York Giants (moved to San Francisco, 1957), and began taking his precocious son to games -- lots of them. "I was a big Mets fan," Axelrod reports. From the age of 8, when his parents separated, he spent weekends with his father, a ballplayer turned psychologist. "Most weekends we'd spend one or both days out at the ballpark," Axelrod remembers. A fan was born.

For nearly four decades Axelrod has lived in Chicago. The transplant is now deeply rooted, with chronic fan syndrome intact. The Mets are history. Now Axelrod holds season tickets to the Chicago Bulls of the NBA, the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs. He and his wife, Susan, have a subscription to Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts. When politics don't interfere, he can lead quite a fan's life.

Axelrod, 53, is the preeminent political consultant in Chicago, and has operated successfully all over the country. He has helped Deval Patrick become governor of Massachusetts, Hillary Clinton become a senator from New York, and Anthony Williams become mayor of Washington, among many others. Over the past 16 months he has become a national figure as chief strategist for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, a job that regularly puts him on television -- "Meet the Press" two Sundays ago and "Face the Nation" last Sunday, and all over cable news last week. On television he is a cool, articulate spokesman for his candidate, a well-spoken salesman with a product to sell. But his friends realize that behind his mild-mannered exterior lurks the intense Axelrod they all know -- the fan.

Politics and sports are close cousins, and politics can provide an outlet for the fan's instincts. Axelrod roots for politicians with the intensity fans usually save for their teams. "He's really sort of an innocent," says Sam Smith, a retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter and one of Axelrod's closest friends. His pal is regularly infatuated with the candidates he works for as a consultant, Smith says: "He believes the best of the people in politics" -- at least for a time.

"He loves his candidates when he starts," Smith explains, but the love often fades; "he's usually let down when he finishes [a campaign]."

Told of Smith's remark, Axelrod demurs, denying that his candidates regularly disappoint him. "That's not really true," he says during a recent conversation in Obama headquarters here. "I've had my disappointments for sure, but I've been really, really lucky. Part of what has allowed me to practice the politics I like is that I've hooked up with some really outstanding people."

He considers Obama the most outstanding of them all. Axelrod has decided that this first-term senator, just 46 years old, is something extraordinary, someone to compare to his earliest political idol, Robert F. Kennedy. "This time he found a candidate who isn't letting him down," Smith says. "Obama is the one different guy."

Robert Swidler, now a lawyer in Troy, N.Y., is Axelrod's oldest friend. They grew up together in Stuyvesant Town, a vast community of high-rise, red-brick apartment houses just north of the East Village in Lower Manhattan. They went off to kindergarten together at Public School 40 on East 19th Street, went through Junior High 104 across the street and won admission to Stuyvesant High School, an academically selective public school, three blocks away.

Swidler recalls how, as 13-year-olds, they set up a card table, first at the Bronx Zoo, then on busy 57th Street, to sell buttons and bumper stickers for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Their politics were established even then, Swidler recalls -- New York liberals with an idealistic bent who thought government should help the weakest members of society.

Axelrod remembers Robert Kennedy's assassination in the early hours of June 5, 1968. He thinks he was awake at the time, nearly 3:30 a.m., watching television or listening to the radio: "I wanted to see if he'd win the [California] primary, I knew how important it was. And I just was devastated, because I found him such an inspiring figure." So did millions of others, of course. Robert Kennedy was the last Democratic politician who could make voters swoon.

"When we started this campaign, I said to Barack, in many ways idealism died with [RFK], and we needed to rekindle that. And if we did this right, perhaps we could help do that." A fan speaks -- grandly, but that's what fans do.

'I'm a Multi-Tasker'

Among political professionals, the Obama campaign has been the object of admiration -- "flawlessly run," in the words of Bob Beckel, campaign manager of Walter F. Mondale's 1984 run for the White House. Obama, Axelrod, his partner David Plouffe and a small band of comrades drew up a plan early in 2007 to challenge the reigning first family of the Democratic Party for the presidential nomination on behalf of a neophyte Illinois senator whose name sounded foreign. They stuck to their plan even when they fell behind Hillary Clinton -- 33 points behind in a Washington Post-ABC News poll of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic that was completed on Sept. 30.

The Obama message also has never changed. As he laid it out in the Feb. 10, 2007, speech announcing his candidacy, Obama blames the country's inability to deal with its many problems on "the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems." When Clinton pulled so far ahead in the polls, many skeptics thought this message was inadequate to the task. Obama, Axelrod and their colleagues thought otherwise.

And then they won the Iowa caucuses. After four months of primaries, caucuses and jockeying for the support of superdelegates -- the past and present elected and party officials who will now decide the ultimate winner -- Obama is the front-runner. The plan worked, at least so far. The fact that he was right when the conventional wisdom was so wrong gives Axelrod considerable satisfaction.

"Seven months ago I was spending a lot of time talking to guys like you who basically would tell me you're 30 points behind in the national polls, she seems almost unbeatable," he says. "Mark Penn [then Clinton's chief strategist] was declaring victory. And we placed our bet on the American people. And now we've won twice as many primaries and caucuses, and I think we're in a very strong position. That's because there is a hunger for something different, and I think Barack represents that."

As chief strategist, Axelrod has been a player-coach for the campaign. He appears comfortably on television for Obama, helps the candidate formulate his message, makes television commercials, consults daily with colleagues on how time and resources should be spent, BlackBerrys constantly with reporters, colleagues and supporters, and talks on the phone, too. "I'm a multi-tasker," he explains.

Axelrod is an atypical political consultant. Over the past generation his profession has become a dominant force in American politics. Its leading practitioners -- all wealthy and most full of themselves -- have become central actors in the country's political dramas. Axelrod has been influential himself, but works hard at avoiding self-promotional bloviation. "I have never believed in the Wizard of Oz theory of consulting, that I am all-knowing and all-seeing, and that everyone around me is kind of a backbencher," he says.

"David always wants to test and retest his ideas -- at all hours!" says Forrest Claypool, his first partner in the consulting business. Axelrod is famous for his middle-of-the-night phone calls. "He's constantly soliciting diverse views," says Claypool.

According to Beckel, whose Mondale campaign featured the jealousies, leaks and backbiting typical of presidential crusades (the sort that have been on display in the strife-torn Clinton campaign this year), the most remarkable aspect of the Obama operation is the total absence of drama. "There seems to be a cohesion there," Beckel says.

Axelrod's troops clearly adore him, and he goes out of his way to praise their accomplishments. For example: "My partner David Plouffe has done the most magnificent job of managing a campaign that I've seen in my life of watching presidential politics. To start something like this from scratch and build what we have built was a truly remarkable thing."

Making His Way

It is also a Chicago thing. To a jaundiced eye from the East, Carl Sandburg's "city of big shoulders" is an unexpected locus of optimism -- a community whose leading citizens believe fervently in civic progress and the ameliorative power of politics. "Chicago is a place where the impossible becomes possible," argues Marilyn Katz, a public relations consultant and political operative who has worked with Axelrod for 30 years. "We don't have New York cynicism."

Axelrod doesn't either, despite his Manhattan origins. His friend David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a sometime resident of the Windy City, says Axelrod has played an important role in diminishing the racial tensions that once racked Chicago, first by helping Harold Washington, the city's first (and still only) black mayor, elected with the votes of white liberals, then by helping Rich Daley, the mayor today and the recipient of large numbers of black votes -- including a majority of them in last year's reelection campaign, when both of Daley's opponents were black. Daley's Chicago is booming, though chronic urban problems like weak schools and crime have not been solved. "The part of his career he is most proud of," says Axelrod's sister, Joan, who is six years older than he, "is his real commitment to politicians who he believes can make a difference."

Axelrod first came to Chicago to attend its famous university in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side. He had been admitted to Columbia in New York and the University of Chicago. "My folks both thought it would be good to get away from New York and be on my own," he remembers. "I didn't disagree." Chicago soon became another of his enthusiasms.

At the university he studied political science and wrote for the Chicago Maroon, the school's daily paper. His specialty was politics, particularly South Side politics. Eugene "Chip" Forrester, another member of the Class of 1977 on the Maroon, remembers Axelrod as an adventurous student reporter who burrowed into the unfamiliar South Side terrain that produced Harold Washington, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Jesse Jackson and other African American politicos. While still an undergraduate he became a political columnist for the Hyde Park Herald, a community weekly, then got an internship with the Chicago Tribune. He was so successful that the Tribune put him on its reporting staff right after he graduated in 1977.

Axelrod's beloved father, a victim of depression, had taken his own life three years earlier, when Axelrod was 19. "I was largely on my own out here," he says. "I kind of grew up at the newspaper, covering the city. I worked nights, covered every manner of disaster, murder and mayhem. Little by little I got to know the city really well, and I fell in love with it. Then I fell in love with a woman from the city, and it was very clear to me that this is where I wanted to be."

Axelrod met Susan Landau playing basketball in a coed league in Hyde Park. Her father was a medical professor at the university. She and Axelrod married in 1979.

Axelrod's career at the Tribune flourished. He became a local political columnist while still in his 20s. But according to his friend Sam Smith, who covered politics with Axelrod before becoming a sportswriter, "David was better than the people above him," and felt his ambitions would be frustrated. So in 1984, when a professorial, liberal Illinois congressman named Paul Simon won the Democratic nomination to run for the Senate against Charles Percy, a three-term Republican incumbent, he was able to persuade Axelrod to become his press secretary.

Switching sides from reporter to participant suited Axelrod. He loved the competition, and he preferred fighting in the arena to a seat in the bleachers. After a shake-up in the Simon campaign, Axelrod found himself -- at 28 -- running all campaign communications. David Wilhelm, then 27, was the campaign manager. With the help of anti-Percy money and commercials from pro-Israel groups angry with the senator's support for selling military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, Simon won. Axelrod thought he had helped a smart, good man to the Senate -- he was a Simon fan.

From there he went into business as a political consultant. Soon Democratic hopefuls were streaming to his door; he made a lot of money. He became famous for ingenious campaign commercials that solved big political problems for his clients.

One was Rahm Emanuel, the veteran of the Clinton White House who returned home to Chicago to run for the House of Representatives in 2002. Opponents called him a carpetbagger and an elitist without roots in the city. Axelrod produced a 30-second spot featuring a Chicago police sergeant named Les Smulevitz, who sat in a diner and spoke into the camera: "I've been a Chicago police officer for a long time, and I've seen it all -- the guns, the gangs, the drugs . . . ." He then touted Emanuel, noting the crime-fighting role he had played in the Clinton White House. "That's why the Fraternal Order of Police and Chicago firefighters back Rahm Emanuel for Congress," Smulevitz said. "And I'd tell you that even if I weren't his uncle." The commercial ended with a photo of uniformed uncle with his arm around his candidate nephew. Emanuel won easily.

Axelrod became "a pillar of the community," in the words of Wilhelm. Axelrod and his wife created Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, a foundation to sponsor research into the disease that had disabled their first child, a daughter named Lauren, now 26. (They also have two sons.) They have raised more than $9 million, with help from numerous politicians, including Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Axelrod concluded years ago that he should never leave Chicago, and should particularly resist the temptation to move to Washington, where most big-time political consultants work and live. He thought, "I might be better at what I do if I lived somewhere where they didn't talk about the Federal Register over dinner." He also liked his role in Chicago, where instead of seeking business, he can now wait for politicians to come to him.

The Obama Connection

In 2002 one of the politicians who sought him out was a boyish state senator from the South Side named Barack Obama, who was contemplating a race for the U.S. Senate. They had met in the early 1990s and liked each other. Axelrod had counseled him to skip the Senate race and wait for a chance to run for mayor, but Obama didn't want to wait.

Axelrod had discussed working for another candidate for the Senate seat that came open in 2004, a wealthy newcomer named Blair Hull who was prepared to spend millions on a race. But Axelrod didn't like him, and was eager to work with Obama -- initially for a small fee. When he began his campaign, Obama had "not a sou" in the bank, in the words of former congressman and appeals court judge Abner Mikva, an early Obama supporter. Mikva was impressed that the big-time consultant would go to work for Obama without any assurance that he would make any money.

"My involvement was a leap of faith," Axelrod later told Obama's biographer, David Mendell. Axelrod had fallen for another candidate -- fallen hard. "I thought that if I could help Barack Obama get to Washington, then I would have accomplished something great in my life."

Instead of a typical business relationship, the two men and their wives have become close friends. According to Mikva, it was Axelrod who persuaded Michelle Obama to approve the idea of her husband running for president. When Mikva called Axelrod earlier this year to complain that the candidate looked exhausted and needed some rest, Axelrod rejected the implicit accusation that he was abusing Obama: "He's my friend, too, you know," he told Mikva.

The Obama presidential campaign has now taken over this fan's life. "It has really played havoc with my basketball and baseball," Axelrod acknowledges. But he has never before had a rooting interest in such a high-stakes game. Nor has he had a candidate he could root for with such enthusiasm -- one he could compare to Robert F. Kennedy. "You never want to compare yourself to an iconic figure like that, and Obama doesn't, but the spirit of possibility in difficult times is a powerful thing," Axelrod says. "And I see that again."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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