by Dax-Devlon Ross
the HNIC Report
On the face of it, The New York Times Magazine’s profile of Obama’s chief political and media strategist, David Axelrod, seems ironic. Why, after all, would the man in charge of shaping Obama’s political image subject himself to media scrutiny? More than anyone, he should be wary of drawing negative attention to his client, something a profile about the ‘man behind the man’ inevitably runs the risk of doing, just ask Pastor Wright. After reading the story twice, four rationales for the profile’s appearance at this juncture crystallized: 1) The Rove Effect; 2) the Democratic Party’s New Strategy’; 3) Defusing Hillary; and 4) the Obama Sensation.
First, The Rove Effect. In the last eight years no other political strategist has become more reviled and feared than Karl Rove. He has been the subject of both a documentary and a book. His name has ominously swirled around nearly every presidential scandal from press leaks to firings. Though unelected, Rove’s engorged face has become synonymous with the largesse of the Evil Empire itself. His tactics have even spawned their own name (if not odor): “Rovian.” The new political landscape requires that unelected and yet highly influential figures step out of the shadows and into the limelight. In as much as we are electing officials to represent us, we are also electing the people who have unfettered access to their ears.
Second, ‘The Best Defense if a Good Offense.’ Call it a lesson learned from the ‘04 election when the Left begged Kerry to swing at Bush rather than crouch in the corner taking body blows. We all remember watching Kerry withstand a barrage of attacks over his war record and wondering why he didn’t unload on his opponent. We all remember feeling as though the Democratic Party was full of a bunch of whimps and stiffs after Rove masterfully cast Bush’s flaws – his stubbornness in particular – as virtues, while the Dems were unable to wrap Kerry in any charismatic aura whatsoever. Well, it seems as though they’ve finally figured it out: you simply can’t win a fight without swinging. By cooperating the story, Axelrod effectively preempts the possibility of being “exposed” in the way Rove has been exposed in the last five years. It’s an adroit strategy that blunts the unavoidable criticism that comes with the territory.
Third, Defusing Hillary. Several years ago Mr. Axelrod’s wife Susan founded Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) to promote research and raise money to find a cure. Mr. Axelrod’s connections in the political world have since afforded the organization support from several prominent figures including “Bill Clinton, Tim Russert and Obama. But few have done as much for the foundation as Hillary Clinton.” Mrs. Clinton has become a passionate supporter of the organization. Had Mr. Axelrod not addressed Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in CURE, the story would have inevitably cast a unfavorable shadow on Obama’s campaign when it leaked later down the line.
Fourth, The Obama Sensation. Two weeks ago The New Republic ran a cover story on Obama’s political education, and a week ago The Chicago Tribune ran a report on his early life that relied heavily on interviews with his childhood friends and teachers. In lieu of a political track record, publications have resorted to unearthing as much as they can from Obama’s past. David Axelrod represents a piece of the puzzle, a slice of the sensation he has played a key role in creating.
What the profile says, substantively, about Obama’s campaign:
1. It is based on a formula already used for another “black” candidate
– “Axelrod says that his model for the Obama campaign came last year when Deval Patrick ran for governor of
Massachusetts. There are many ways in which Patrick’s run and Obama’s are similar: the optimism, the constant presence of the candidate’s biography, the combination of a crusading message of reform with the candidate’s natural pragmatism, the insistence that normal political categories did not apply, even the same, unofficial slogan, shouted from the crowds — “Yes. We. Can!” But most essential is the way in which both of these campaigns came to use the symbolism that accompanies their candidates’ race, not by apologizing for it or ignoring it but by embracing the constant attention paid to the historic nature of the candidacy itself.
2. It is designed to highlight Obama’s commitment to the people.
– “There was a clip he found from the early stages of the 2004 Senate campaign of Obama, microphone in hand, introducing himself to a small group of voters at a coffeehouse on Chicago’s North Side; when the candidate told them about his work in the early 1990s as a community organizer, there was a spontaneous, sustained applause. “I remember that!” Axelrod told me a few days later as we watched the finished product in his office the morning it was released to the public. “You know, we hadn’t thought that was an important part of his bio, but people really responded to the fact that Barack gave up corporate job offers to work in the community.”
3. It is conventionally unconventional not unconventionally conventional.
– “One of the reasons Bush has succeeded in two elections,” Axelrod says, “is that in his own rough-hewn way he has conveyed a sense of this is who I am, warts and all.” For Obama, because of Senator Hillary Clinton’s far-greater experience and establishment backing, this is a particularly essential project. “If we run a conventional campaign and look like a conventional candidacy, we lose,” Axelrod says.”
4. It is deliberately vague on the issues.
– “Axelrod’s is a less grand, postideological approach, and his campaigns are rooted less in issues than in the particulars of his candidate’s life. For him, running campaigns hitched to personality rather than ideology is a way of reclaiming fleeting authenticity…What David is basically doing — and this is somewhat new for Democrats — isn’t trying to figure out how to sell policies,” says the Democratic media consultant Saul Shorr. “It’s a matter of personality. How do we sell leadership?”
What the profile indirectly says about Axelrod:
1. He’s at least partially responsible for Obama’s recent efforts to link himself to
– “His bookshelves are filled with Abe Lincoln biographies, but what he says he admires about
Lincoln isn’t just his philosophy but his political effectiveness, the Great Emancipator’s secret shiv.”
– “On the second Saturday in February, David and Susan Axelrod drove down to the old Statehouse in Springfield, Ill., to watch Obama officially announce his candidacy for president, giving a speech he had sent to Axelrod for edits at 4 in the morning, two nights before…[t]he historic overtones of the speech were unguarded and blunt. Obama mentioned Lincoln half a dozen times…”
2. He is a skillful manipulator of the black politician’s reform image
– “In his office back in Chicago, Axelrod’s walls aren’t covered with bookcases but with political images, candidates Axelrod has worked for on winning election nights, their hands thrust up, their grins wide, the newspaper headlines behind them. There are the black mayors of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. There is a charming, signed shot of Obama underneath a print of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston. Signed thanks from Harold Washington. It is a museum of a particular kind of history — not just the evolution of the modern political left but also the ascendance of a particular kind of charismatic, reformer African-American candidate.”
What the profile indirectly says about the business of campaigns:
1. There are so few players on the national political scene that even someone like Obama who frames his message around being an “outsider” is working within the same construct as those who’ve come before him. It also tells us that political strategists, like entertainment agents, are hired to sell their client to an audience.
– “In the last four years, Axelrod has helped steer campaigns for fully four of the Democrats now running for president — Obama, Clinton, John Edwardsand Chris Dodd — and one who dropped out (Tome Vilsack; framed the messages for the new young governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick; and served as the chief political adviser for Representative Rahm Emanuel when the congressman helped orchestrate the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives last fall.”
What the profile says about voters:
1. Political operatives are confident that voters can be manipulated with a few skillful maneuvers.
– “The [Obama’s ‘04 Senate]campaign needed to find a way for him to add white progressives from theChicago suburbs and lakefront to his expected base among black voters. “When you’re breaking barriers and asking voters to do something they haven’t done before — vote for an African-American for governor or senator — it’s very helpful to have third-party authentication, newspaper endorsements or institutional support, to encourage them to go there,” Axelrod told me. His first choice to vouch for Obama was his old client Paul Simon, the bow-tied, progressive, retired U.S. senator and a beloved figure in their target demographics. But just as Axelrod was trying to fix dates, Simon was taken to the hospital for heart surgery; he died the next day. Paul Harstad, the campaign’s pollster, told me that Axelrod was adamant that Simon had been the perfect proxy. So he sought out the closest substitute he could find and cut a commercial featuring the senator’s daughter, Sheila, a member of the Carbondale, Ill., City Council. Sheila Simon made an ad for Axelrod linking Obama’s legacy and her father’s, saying they were “cut from the same cloth.” When the cash-strapped campaign put the ads on the air and then followed up with another ad linking Obama to Harold Washington, the late, beloved, liberal mayor of Chicago, “that was it,” according to Mark Blumenthal, who was running tracking polls for the opposing Senate campaign of Blair Hull. “The ads did something rare in politics, which was make Obama seem like a historic candidate,” Blumenthal told me. “They helped move his numbers from 30, 35 percent up to 53 percent, and it became a landslide. You could just about see this whole Obama wave beginning.”