“That background is very nice with your hair. It doesn’t show any flyaways,” says Marcia, a makeup artist for MSNBC, as she attacks David Axelrod’s face with a baby wipe so he doesn’t walk off the set wearing his TV makeup.
“Is it? Which particular hair is it nice with?” asks Axelrod.
The president’s former chief strategist has just appeared on Alex Wagner’s show along with New York Times writer Frank Bruni. His end of the interview was taped in a little TV studio at the University of Chicago’s business school, where, since 2012, he has headed the Institute of Politics. On-air, Wagner and Bruni were trying to game the president’s political strategy when Axe had to cut in with a reminder of what really motivates his old boss: doing what he thinks is right. “I didn’t mean to step on Bruni there,” he says, strolling through the brightly lit lounge at the business school. “But it’s like, Yeah, maybe he actually believes this shit! Freud once said, ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’ In Washington, it’s never just a cigar. There always has to be some other meaning or scheme or motivation.”
If in Washington Axelrod had a reputation as a bit of a slob-savant — a mustachioed, stained-shirted master-of-messaging too busy to worry about appearances because he was delivering us the leader of the freaking free world — now he’s not exactly tanned, rested, and ready (this is Chicago in January), but he does look healthier and less harried. This month, he will release Believer, a memoir about his life in politics.
“My ultimate conclusion,” he says, entering the B-school cafeteria, “is that it was a great disappointment that we couldn’t change the tenor of politics in Washington.” He picks out a small cup of vegetable soup and a bottle of Perrier and finds a corner table. “I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, principal among them the strategic decision on the part of the Republicans that it wasn’t in their interest.” Still, he’s proud of what Obama has accomplished. “Every one of those 10 million people who have health care who didn’t have it before, or every one of those who are getting treated better today because of the health-care bill — that’s real, meaningful, tangible change,” he adds, pausing to take a careful sip of soup. “There were 180,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq when we took office. Most of them are home now with their families.” He rattles off a few more issues: climate change, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which paved the way for a discussion about marriage equality. “That’s real change. Financial reform may not be everything everyone wanted, but the truth is there’s a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on the beat today.” He keeps going: Cuba policy, executive action on immigration. “There’s certainly unfinished business.” Still, he says, “I’m really, really proud of him.
As for Axelrod, after the 2008 campaign, he stayed in D.C. for two years, during which time he and David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager, were often presented as the president’s yin and yang, with Plouffe his pragmatic-competitive edge and Axelrod his lofty optimism. It being Washington, pragmatism tended to win out over idealism, which can make Axelrod’s titling his battle diary Believer seem almost an act of defiance. In the book and in person, he comes off triumphant if a bit wistful, an unwavering defender of the president’s agenda.
Even when writing about tensions in the White House, he doesn’t take any shots at his former colleagues. The juiciest he gets is admitting that he and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, often tussled when Axelrod thought one of Emanuel’s tactics violated the spirit of the campaign. He quotes Rahm as screaming, “I’m goddamned sick of hearing about the fucking campaign … The campaign is over. We’re trying to solve some problems here!”
“I didn’t want to write a book that would be measured by the number of revelations in Politico,” Axelrod says. “I wanted to write a narrative, a story about my life, through my eyes, through the evolution of politics in our country.” He just shared the book with Obama, and he’s waiting for the formidable writer to tell him what he thinks. “I hope that he likes the book, because it’s the story of our journey together, not just my story but his story. I have great affection — not just respect, but affection — for him,” he says. “I’ll always feel close to him, even when we’re distant.”
Axelrod stuffs his hands in the pockets of his blazer and walks the short block back to the Institute of Politics. Inside, the floors are covered in the salt stains of a hundred student boots. The institute, which hosts an impressive slate of speakers from both parties, including, in April, Mitt Romney, is something of an ad hoc museum, filled with Axelrod’s collection of American political artifacts. In the front hall is a glass-encased ballot box from the Florida 2000 presidential election. There’s also a napkin signed by JFK, a letter from the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to the Chicago mayor’s son, and a signed poster of Michael Jordan. “When the president turned 50, I wanted to get him something special … so I sent it to Jordan to have him sign it for me.” In black Sharpie, Jordan scrawled, “To Barrack: you still owe me dinner. Wishing you well, Michael Jordan.”
“I gave it to the president, and he said, ‘I can’t put this up, he misspelled my name!’ So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll take it.’ ” His own office is a special exhibit dedicated to his time in politics — a program from a State of the Union speech, a ticket to the Nobel Prize ceremony, an invite to Obama’s swearing-in as senator, with the words HERE BECAUSE OF YOU! written in the president’s script.
As if he didn’t have enough reason to be nostalgic for the old fight: The week before I met Axelrod, Romney said he wanted to run again (three weeks later, he changed his mind). “It’s obviously been an ambition of his for a long time,” he says. “I think he cares about the country and thinks he’d be a good president. He’s someone who’s been successful in everything he’s done in his life. This is the one thing he hasn’t been successful at, and I’m sure that that is a nagging feeling.”
Like almost everyone, Axelrod thinks the Democratic nominee will likely be Hillary. In the book, he recounts a scene after the election in which he tried to pay his respects to Clinton. “I thought it went well,” he wrote. “But later I realized that I probably sounded like the phony, cloying Eddie Haskell from the old Leave It to Beaver show, buttering up Mrs. Cleaver.” Clinton once described the conversation as like having a “root canal.” He is careful with his critique. “Last time, the problem they had was that the candidacy got out ahead of the rationale for it,” he says. “After she lost the Iowa caucuses, I thought she became very formidable, much more connected with people, much more visceral. She threw caution to the wind,” he says. “I think she was much more revealing of herself in 2008, when I presume she felt she had nothing to lose.”
Hillary will get another shot at being a candidate, but this time Axelrod will be watching from the sidelines. “It was a very, very — it was exciting, it was exhilarating, it was addictive. But like a lot of addictions, too much of it is not good for you,” he says of his time in presidential politics. He is really — he swears — done, at least with domestic politics. “But, you know, what am I going to do in American politics that can eclipse what I’ve done?” Outside the institute, he squints into the afternoon light. “I’ve been at the mountaintop.”
*This article appears in the February 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.