Carol Felsenthal
On politics

How Obama Pushed Axelrod Out of the White House

It wasn’t exactly “no drama Obama” in the dismissal of a trusted advisor, Richard Wolffe’s new book reveals.

Axelrod in 2011 

Photo: José M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

Richard Wolffe’s The Message: The Reselling of President Obama is the latest in the lengthening list of 2012 campaign books. Given the new book’s title, it’s not surprising that Obama’s old friend and messaging maestro David Axelrod occupies center stage. Wolffe, MSNBC executive editor and former Newsweek senior White House correspondent, acknowledges Axelrod as one of the characters who sat for interviews. A genius at strategy and ad making, Axelrod gets mostly friendly treatment—insightful, detailed—in Wolffe’s account of a campaign that was certainly more dysfunctional and drama-filled than I recognized at the time.

Axelrod is a Chicago guy by way of New York who went to college at the University of Chicago and never left his adopted city. Or, almost never. In 2009, Axelrod followed Obama to the White House where he was given an office near the “Oval” and unusual access to the rookie President. The access was well-earned. It was Axelrod, after all, who saw the promise in the obscure state senator and helped him win the U.S. Senate race in 2004, and the White House in 2008, and, to a lesser and certainly less joyful extent, in 2012.

Wolffe describes Obama, in January 2011—gearing up to run for reelection against the backdrop of a miserable economy—coldly pushing his loyal strategist, “the keeper of the flame for hope and change,” out of his coveted office and sending him back to Chicago, supposedly to spend more time with his family and rest up for the coming campaign.

Here’s Wolffe’s take on the real story:

Axelrod is deeply emotionally invested in the cool and detached Obama. Wolffe describes Axelrod, “after Obama delivered a flawless acceptance speech” in 2008, as embracing the nominee with his eyes closed and “with the kind of ear-to-ear smile that suggested he was almost in love with his candidate.” Axelrod had in many ways created Barack Obama as a candidate,” Wolffe writes. “He had not just crafted his ads since 2004; he had co-written his narrative.” In 2008, Axelrod turned down an offer from his old friends, Bill and Hillary Clinton, to help take Hillary to the White House. (Axelrod had been key in helping her get to the U.S Senate, and she had helped the Axelrods “set up their foundation to research epilepsy, a condition that had ravaged their daughter.”)

During the 2012 campaign, Axelrod was treated shabbily not only by Obama, but by his new team of advisers. One of them was David Plouffe, a former AKPD partner of Axelrod’s, who arrived at the White House just as Axelrod was vanquished and took over Axelrod’s duties and his office, “next to the President’s private study and the Oval office.” Another was Jim Messina, campaign manager in the Chicago headquarters.

Obama’s first two years as president were rocky, and the 2010 Tea Party-infused midterms were nightmarish. Axelrod was almost always there, doing whatever was needed to shepherd Obama through. “And then he was pushed out … a wrenching expression of disaffection from the president he had fallen for. After two brutal years in the White House, when nobody was happy with the message, he was now on the outside looking in.” Wolffe describes Obama as breaking Axelrod’s heart, and, quoting a “member of the inner circle,” characterizes Axelrod’s exile to Chicago as being “effectively fired. He owes everything to Axe. Everything. He’d never have gotten anywhere without him.”

Back in Chicago, Axelrod resumed a role in the campaign, but a more “limited” one.

Wolffe portrays Axelrod as “a wily strategist who liked to keep an iron grip on the levers of the message machine,” but who also was “scattershot” and “indecisive” and “shambling” and endearingly sloppy; a man who would “drip” food on whatever shirt and/or tie he happened to be wearing. The exterior might be messy, but the reader comes away with an appreciation for Axelrod’s brain and his gut. Wolffe reports that, when the economy collapsed in 2008, “Axelrod told Obama he was likely heading for victory as president and defeat in the midterms that followed.”

In the first campaign, Axelrod, like his colleagues, hadn’t a clue “how big the Obama operation could be;” so he “capped” his fees. For the first two years of the first term, Axelrod was working in the White House; the two years previous he had, in effect, campaigned full-time for Obama. In 2012, he wanted to make money, and he hired a lawyer to negotiate “his deal.”

In contrast, his competitor Plouffe, recharging his batteries after the first campaign, in preparation for the second, “had made a fortune on the speaking circuit while Axelrod was struggling to find the message during the great recession and the rise of the Tea Party. Everyone else could monetize their 2008 experience except the man most loyal to the president.” Messina, whose relationship with Axelrod was poisonous—Axelrod thought the campaign manager “lacked the ability to see the big picture and had too small a world view for such a big job”—was irritated with Axelrod for retaining an lawyer and Messina “hacked away at Axelrod’s demands.”

Messina told friends that he was following the orders of the President: “I don’t want anybody to get rich on this. They’re gonna get rich on the books they write afterwards.”

Axelrod was insecure, and, Wolffe writes, “fretted about his status, not least after getting pushed out of the West Wing, and he loved to be courted by TV producers. The fleeting fame of TV punditry offered some comfort from the harsh critique that came from internal political disputes…” The new powers that be decided that Axelrod didn’t come off so well on television, and so his role as surrogate was limited there too—not before he had a shouting match with deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, who also had a tenuous tie to the new order, and an especially toxic relationship with Jim Messina. Axelrod thought Cutter had poached an invitation from CBS This Morning. Axelrod and Cutter, now a host on CNN’s Crossfire, eventually resolved their differences, although neither seems to have resolved things with Messina.

Now back with his family in Chicago, and founder and director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, Axelrod is currently writing a memoir for which he reportedly scored a low seven-figure advance. Whether President Obama would regard that as the stuff of riches is not known.

The Message is a sequel to Wolffe’s 2009 book, Renegade: the Making of a President.

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