David Axelrod’s Believer is a welcome window into urban politics and Barack Obama’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate and the White House. Axelrod’s autobiography lays out his own journey from New Yorker to Chicagoan, from reporter to political operative to presidential advisor. The story is not suspenseful; we know what Axelrod accomplished and where he landed. Still, it is illuminating, human, and an altogether worthwhile read.
From the outset, Axelrod’s book is a paean to idealism. But to his credit, Axelrod acknowledges that politics played well is transactional. In our polarized and ideologically riven America, too few players own up to this fact.
Not surprisingly, Axelrod’s take on things is liberal and Democratic, and he comes to it organically. Axelrod is the grandson of Jewish immigrants, and his father, Joseph, registered to vote as a Communist. Indeed, in a 2010 speech to the National Jewish Democratic Council, Axelrod lauded his dad, equated the “progressive values of our party” with “Tikkun Olam”—a Jewish analog to the Social Gospel—and urged the audience “to look beyond our selves to make a better world.” Apparently the past burdens Axelrod, and he would have that weigh on the rest of us.
“Axe” himself grew up in Stuyvesant Town, a tract of middle-income housing lodged along Manhattan’s East River. To him, John F. Kennedy’s Camelot was the New Jerusalem, and his upward arc and search for refuge would drive him from the old neighborhood. At the age of 13, Axelrod volunteered for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. As he describes it, Kennedy had become for many a voice of “outrage” against the Vietnam War and “social injustice amid historic postwar affluence.”
Axelrod’s discomfort with America mirrored a painful home life and his parents’ discordant marriage, which ended not long after Richard Nixon’s election. As he acknowledges, “so many are chasing ghosts—trying to live up to the legacies and demands of a parent, or compensating for one’s absence.” Tragically, Axelrod father committed suicide.
After Axelrod graduated from Stuyvesant, New York City’s ultra-meritocratic public high school, he declined the opportunity to attend a post-1968-riot-Columbia and instead headed west to enroll at the University of Chicago. Drawn to journalism, like his distant mother, Myril Davidson, Axelrod wrote for newspapers while still an undergraduate, diving head-first into Chicago’s racial tensions, ethnic rivalries, and corruption.
His first column for the Hyde Park Herald, a local Chicago paper, was titled “The Mayor, Metcalfe, and Police Brutality” and focused on the rift between Chicago’s then-mayor, Richard Daley, and Congressman Ralph Metcalfe—Daley’s former African-American lieutenant and a gold medal winner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—“over the treatment of black residents by the Chicago Police Department.”
Axelrod viewed urban politics as “the most visceral and interesting.” Implicit in this judgment is the fact that cities are tribal, all the more so as urban politics becomes less about black-white relations and more about competition between multiple ethnic groups and hues in the face of income stratification and self-segregation. “Brazilification” has come to the United States.
Looking at things granularly, of America’s 35 largest cities, 28 have Democratic mayors. And it is not just Republican candidates who fare poorly in urban elections but Republican operatives as well. While the latter are aware of America’s racial divides, they are less adept than Democratic operatives at addressing inter-ethnic rivalries. By contrast, Axelrod would learn to be painstaking at finding just the right accent and dialect for Spanish-language radio ads.
For a college kid like Axelrod in the 1970s, getting paid $15 a column was a great gig, one that enabled him to see politics up close and personal. But more important, it was an excellent education for a future Democratic operative in a post-McGovern, post-Watergate universe, in which identity politics would emerge as a dominant driver—along with technology—in shaping elections and the electorate.
Upon graduation, Axelrod went straight to the Chicago Tribune, where he would eventually cover national politics. Unfortunately, Chicago was deteriorating along with the rest of America’s cities, and newspapers were paying ever greater attention to the bottom line. From where Axelrod stood, “change was happening at the paper foreshadowing disturbing trends in the industry.” By the time he had turned 29, Axelrod had left journalism for politics, and as he put it, “in the blink of an eye, I made the transition from chronicler to campaigner.”
In his first campaign as an adult, Axelrod helped elect Congressman Paul Simon to the U.S. Senate in 1984 by unseating incumbent Republican Charles Percy, one of the last of the Rockefeller Republicans. The Simon campaign was an incubator for future Democratic political talent like Rahm Emanuel, later to emerge as Obama’s chief of staff and eventually mayor of Chicago, and David Wilhelm, who would go on to manage Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign and later become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Although George McGovern had lost in a landslide in 1972, his torch had been passed.
Come 1992, Axelrod was offered the position of communication director on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, which he declined for good reason. Lauren, Axelrod’s daughter, suffered from epilepsy, and he did not want to be away from home.
Axelrod analyzes what Clinton brought to politics—and it was different from Axelrod’s vision. In addition to very serious smarts, Clinton conveyed a certain concern for the middle class and, as a Southern governor and a Democrat, Clinton knew how to navigate the treacherous shoals of race while forging a winning coalition. Further, he intuitively understood the nexus between policy and politics, campaigning and governing.
Yet with all of Clinton’s expressed sympathy for the middle class, Axelrod notes that the dynamics of the emerging Democratic Party rested on fusing the votes of highly educated white liberals together with those of America’s minorities. Indeed, as a political operative, Axelrod took this lesson to heart.
In 1992, he helped skipper Carol Moseley Braun’s campaign to become the first African-American woman in the U.S. Senate. Two years later he aided Carl McCall in his successful bid to become New York’s comptroller and its first African-American elected to a statewide office. Yet Believer says nothing about McCall. This permits Axelrod to neglect to mention that McCall’s failed 2002 gubernatorial effort was marred by revelations that McCall used official state letterhead in an effort to shakedown business to get jobs for family and friends, and a year earlier he and Axelrod had had a semi-public falling-out.
Axelrod also led Deval Patrick to the Massachusetts Governor’s Mansion in 2006, another first. By far Axelrod’s most famous successes, however, were Barack Obama’s string of electoral triumphs, starting with his 2004 Senate race. For Axelrod, Obama was almost RFK reincarnate. Comparing Obama to Robert Kennedy, Axelrod observes that the people who joined Kennedy’s campaign “sought to do more than simply win one man’s election.” Rather, “they were out to change the world.” From Axelrod’s perch, Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign offered the “chance to rekindle that kind of idealism.”
Looking at the Obama presidency, Axelrod credits Obama for the rescue of the automobile industry and comments on its role in maintaining the president’s hold on the industrial Midwest in the 2012 election. Axelrod notes that the administration also attempted to woo the middle class in its reelection drive. Left unsaid by Axelrod, however, is that the white voters went Republican by the largest margin in nearly a quarter-century. Since 1988 no Republican had done better than Mitt Romney did with white voters—and he still lost.
Axelrod acknowledges, however, that after re-election Obama turned his sights elsewhere, to the “punch list” of the Democratic Party’s donor gentry and the lower rungs of the Democratic base, filling his agenda with “climate change, immigration reform, a sharper focus on poverty and discrimination.” Once again, Obama put the Democrats’ upstairs-downstairs coalition first, unshackled by never again having to see his name on an election ballot.
Believer’s author deserves credit for successfully leading an insurgency against Hillary Clinton in 2007—for rejecting politics as a family business and seeing through her. As Axelrod writes of Senator Clinton, in her presidential primary fights against Obama “she had pressed her advantage on Washington experience and gamely parried our call for change by embracing the word. Yet the ‘change’ Hillary was offering was not much change at all.” On a technical level, Axelrod earns kudos for understanding just who and what the Democrats were and for parsing the realities of the primary and caucus map. Axelrod proved that the new boss need not be the old boss. Fittingly, he closes by invoking “JFK’s call to a New Generation of Leadership” and reaffirming that after all of it he, Axelrod, was “still a believer.”
Yet Axelrod is not done with politics. He makes the case that elections should not be treated as coronations, that rationales should be prerequisites for candidacies, and that running for president cannot simply be about self-actualization. Although Axelrod writes approvingly of America’s changing demographics—which is to be expected from a Democratic operative whose bread and butter has been the country’s burgeoning diversity—he also cautions that demographics by themselves cannot be a battle cry.
Looking to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy, Axelrod observes, “I think the danger for Secretary Clinton is that, as was the case in 2007, her candidacy is out in front of the rationale for it … . She should not rely too much on the fact that we do have an electoral vote advantage and demographic advantages.” Unlike other Democratic doyens, he has taken Mrs. Clinton to task for privatizing her government emails while at Foggy Bottom.
Like Walter Mondale taunting Gary Hart in 1984 about “where’s the beef,” Axelrod asks, “You hear Ready for Hillary; it’s like, ‘Ready for what?” Axelrod understands that dynasty, marriage, and lineage are not what politics should be about in a republic—even Robert Kennedy did his own heavy lifting, ever mindful that on Election Day both hearts and minds matter. At the moment, no one is confusing Hillary Clinton with the late Attorney General—it’s not even close.
Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988 and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.