“I think [Obama] will put states in play that no other [Democrat] can put in play. ”
Media consultant David Axelrod is the senior strategist for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. As Obama's closest and most influential political adviser, he helped propel him to the national stage with his successful Senate campaign of 2004.
Edited excerpts of Axelrod's two recent interviews with National Journal's Linda Douglass follow. For previous Insider Interviews, click here.
Q: Given the questions that have been raised about Obama's experience, how do you make the case that he is the best person to lead the country in an unsafe world?
Axelrod: I was there in 2002 when he made his decision to oppose the war and gave what turned out to be an almost chillingly prescient critique [PDF] of why we shouldn't go. He talked about getting mired in a war of undetermined length and undetermined cost and undetermined consequences because of the ancient ethnic rivalries that we would unleash. And he talked about the fact that they were going to divert our attention from Al Qaeda. Now we know he was right on both counts. And it's that kind of judgment and insight that you want in a president of the United States.
And I think he has a deep, rich understanding of the world as someone who's lived in the world, as someone who has relatives overseas. He went to Africa and challenged the South Africans on HIV/AIDS, and went to the camps in Darfur and worked hard on that issue. He would bring a new face to American foreign policy that would help advance the cause of the country and make us more secure.
Q: Obama has had a great first act. But a lot of Democrats are getting impatient for a second act. Is a second act coming?
Axelrod: I would say the impatience is mostly among insiders in Washington. If you go out with Obama, when you see how people are reacting, how hungry they are for a different style of politics in this town, I think you'll see that there is a seamlessness to this. It isn't divided into acts.
We got in this race because this is a dysfunctional town that can't cope with the problems that are facing this country. And it is going to take a different style of leadership to change that.
Q: So is he going to keep saying what he's been saying all along, or will he move into a different theme or stage in his campaign?
Axelrod: I think that campaigns are evolutionary. But I also think this is not a campaign that is searching for a rationale. This is a campaign that began with a rationale and a very strong belief. And that's not going to change.
Q: It does look, despite all the money that Obama has raised, that you are stalled in the polls.
Axelrod: I don't believe that. I don't even accept that premise. The national polls have been fairly consistent. But this is a sequential process, and we're concentrating our effort in the states where the race is going to begin. And all the signs in these states are positive. The enthusiasm level is high; the organizations are strong. So we are right on target where we want to be. Our goal is not to win national polls in June. Our goal is to win primaries and caucuses in January and February.
Q: Three and a half years ago, Howard Dean electrified the netroots. He raised a surprisingly large amount of money and then fizzled in the end. How is Obama '08 different from Dean '04?
Axelrod: I don't know if you've seen -- and this is not in any way to denigrate [Democratic National Committee] Chairman Dean -- Howard Dean and Barack Obama side by side. But I don't think anybody would mistake the two. Barack Obama is a very inspiring, charismatic leader, who I think gives people great hope about our country. And I think that's ultimately what people are looking for.
I also think there are other factors there. Obviously, Senator Obama has a unique base. That'll be helpful in this campaign.
Q: What is that unique base?
Axelrod: I think he has a strong base in the African-American community that in some states is going to be very, very helpful. That is a fundamental difference. But the basic difference is that these are two different people, and they have two different styles.
Q: You've been quoted as saying Obama will "heal the nation." What exactly does that mean?
Axelrod: We've seen the polar ideologies take our politics hostage, and we can't come to sensible compromises. And we've seen great disillusionment among people as money has become more and more important in policies in Washington, where lobbyists are now writing our laws, rules, and regulations to a degree we've never seen before. All are wounds to our country that have to be healed.
Q: You've known Obama longer and better in his political life than anyone else. What is it that you know about him that you need to get across?
Axelrod: I think, ultimately, a person is defined by the choices they make in their lives. His choice was to leave college and go back and take a job as a community organizer in Chicago. He went back to law school, headed up the Harvard Law Review, and turned down all the big-money offers and went back to Chicago to head a voter-registration project to defend civil rights. He went to the state Senate and passed dozens of really significant, landmark bills that touched people's lives -- tax relief for low-income workers; expanded health care; fixing a broken death-penalty law; dealing with racial profiling in a way that was unprecedented. He did it by building consensus instead of blowing up bridges.
The second thing that I think is an important thread throughout his career is that he is always trying to make government work for people instead of special interests. He passed the first campaign finance reform in Illinois in three generations. He came to the [U.S.] Senate and pushed for ethics reforms that, frankly, both parties opposed, including disclosure by lobbyists of who they are raising money from and who they are giving money to -- probably the single most important reform that was passed this year. So I think people need to know where he's come from, what he's done, what his public values are. I think it separates him from the tawdry ethics that we have become too accustomed to in our politics.
Q: NJ: Despite her high negatives, Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to have solidified her lead in current national polls. Does Obama have to do something to pull ahead of her, or does she have to stumble, or both?
Axelrod: I'm not concerned about national polls. I think when [voters] learn more about the candidates, and they hear what Obama's thoughts are about where we should take this country, I think they are going to decide that he is the person who can do that. That is the real question about change. As he says, "Change is not just a slogan." Real change requires more than words.
He is not of Washington; he comes from a different orientation. It's true that if long lineage in Washington politics is a requirement for being president, he won't be the president. But if an ability to challenge broken politics, to challenge insider trading in politics, to challenge divisiveness and polarization are what people are looking for, I think he is the obvious choice.
Q: Does he represent change more than she does?
Axelrod: I think he represents change more than any of the other people. No one brings the kind of background and history that he does. No one brings, I think, the sense of identification with people who are struggling to be heard. Yes, I do. I think he represents change in a much bolder and more meaningful way.
Q: In every election, candidates try to downplay Iowa, and it almost never works. How important is winning Iowa to Obama's success?
Axelrod: We have to do well in Iowa. I'm not going to set the bar. I'll let others decide that. We saw that there were people in Senator Clinton's camp who wanted to abandon Iowa, and they ultimately decided that she couldn't do that. So Iowa is very, very important. We take it very seriously. It's a neighboring state to Illinois, so we feel a kinship with Iowa.
Now, Senator [John] Edwards has been camped out there for five years. And he's got a lot of good relationships there and a lot of strength. He should not be underestimated.
Q: What state do you see Obama winning that John Kerry did not?
Axelrod: I think he can and will win every state that Senator Kerry did. I think there are other states that he will win, starting with Ohio. But I think he will put other states in play that no other [Democrat] can put in play. There is no doubt that the energy and enthusiasm in the African-American community will give us a chance in some Southern states where there is a high number of African-American voters, and some who are not necessarily registered to vote. We can increase that registration, we can increase that turnout, and put those states in play.
The other thing is that if you look at these national polls, unlike some of the other candidates, he has enormously high positives and relatively low negatives. If half the voters have an unfavorable impression of you, you are already into a very dangerous area. We don't have that issue.