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23 May 2008 08:30
He has been a near-constant presence at hundreds of Barack Obama rallies across the United States over the past 15 months. David Axelrod, a melancholy, dishevelled figure with a drooping moustache, is Obama’s campaign strategist, and has overseen his rise from political obscurity to the verge of the White House.
A genial, courteous man, he can usually be found in the pens reserved for journalists at the back of the rallies, pacing back and forward or in a huddle with reporters, in contrast with the Hillary Clinton media machine, which has been often aloof, abrasive and inaccessible—until she started losing in February.
Axelrod makes time for almost all journalists, whether from small-town American papers or camera crews from Japanese television stations he has never heard of.
But there is another side to him, one not visible to journalists in the pen.
David Mendell, author of the only serious biography so far of Obama, has watched Axelrod up close in Chicago politics. “He can be cut-throat. He believes when you get in a race, you beat the other side by almost any means necessary,” Mendell said on Thursday.
The Clinton machine opts for frontal assault, beating you over the head with a blunt instrument, Mendell said, but Axelrod will be more subtle, leaving little trace: “He can do it very delicately, to the point that you may not realise he is slicing your head off.”
Clinton has found this out the hard way. She was 33 points clear of Obama in a poll in September but today it is Obama who is close to clinching the Democratic nomination. Axelrod now has the task of plotting how Obama can defeat the Republican John McCain in November to become the first black president.
Although Chicago is home, Axelrod (53) was born in New York’s Lower East Side, into a left-wing Jewish family, his mother a journalist and his father a psychologist. When he was only 19, his father, suffering from depression, killed himself, an act that so devastated Axelrod that it would be 30 years before he would publicly acknowledge it, with an article about depression.
He studied politics at Chicago University and joined the Chicago Tribune, where he worked for seven years, firstly on the night team as a crime reporter and later as a political correspondent.
Howard Tyner, who worked alongside him on the metro desk and later became Tribune editor, recalled that he was chronically late but “a very good reporter, a very smart guy, a good basketball player, very aggressive”. He added: “He was intensely interested in politics from the moment he joined the paper. It does not surprise me in the least [that he switched to politics].”
Although Axelrod rose fast at the Tribune, it was not fast enough for him. He left to set up as a political consultant, and has since helped in the campaigns of an estimated hundred politicians from Chicago and across the country. Most of them are liberal, reflecting his own politics, and many of them are black. But he is not in it just out of a sense of idealism: his company, AKP Message and Media, has made millions. He met Obama in Chicago in 1992, tipped off by a mutual friend that he was someone to watch. The two were regulars at Chicago’s hang-out for journalists and politicians, Manny’s Deli. In 2002, Obama asked for his help in running for the senate and they have been together since.
While Obama’s success is largely down to his own charisma, Axelrod has helped shape him. He has created the ads, dealing with the media and working out the overall strategy. He ran Deval Patrick’s successful campaign to become the first black governor of Massachusetts in 2006, a model for Obama’s run for the presidency, including the chant “Yes, we can”.
Axelrod and the campaign team agreed with Obama to focus on a message of change and it has worked for them. Axelrod has also embraced new media, putting together videos for YouTube and fundraising on the internet. There have been mistakes. Axelrod was slow to recognise the damage caused by the row over Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Clinton had been a friend. Axelrod worked on her successful senate bid in 2000 but the friendship went deeper than that. The Axelrods set up a foundation to help with epilepsy—one of their three daughters had suffered badly and lives in a home—and Clinton was one of the main fundraisers.
His friends say he is exhausted, as is Obama, from the five-month primary battle. What will he do if Obama wins the White House? Mendell said: “He said he wants to stay in Chicago and has no interest in going to Washington. My sense is that this might change if Obama wins.” Obama would want his alter ego beside him, and the prospect of turning down a top job at the White House would be hard to resist. - guardian.co.uk Â
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