Event Summary by Richard C. Longworth
On the March day in 2010 when the Affordable Care Act finally passed Congress, David Axelrod was in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, watching the voting with President Obama and other officials. As passage neared, he said, “I got up and went to my office and closed the door. I found myself weeping, big sobs.”
Axelrod’s daughter Lauren suffered from crippling epilepsy and he knew the cost, financial as well as personal, that he and his wife Susan had paid over the years. That day in Washington, he said, “I was crying because I realized that other Americans didn’t have to go through what my family went through.”
When, a few minutes later, Axelrod thanked Obama, the president just said, “That’s why we do the work.”
As Axelrod told a Chicago Council luncheon Wednesday, that “opportunity to make a difference” is what drove him through 40 years in politics, from the City Hall beat at the Chicago Tribune, through early days as a political consultant to candidates such as former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, to his leadership of the campaigns that took Obama to the Senate and then to the presidency.
The title of Axelrod’s new memoir is Believer, which sums up the idealism of a hard-nosed political pro who emerged from the bear pit of Chicago and national politics with his idealism intact.
“We’re not flotsam on the waters of history,” he said. “We can determine the quality of our lives. Politics is the way in which we achieve the future.”
Axelrod now is teaching what he’s learned at the Institute of Politics, which he founded at his alma mater, the University of Chicago. To young people cynical over political gridlock, he insisted that progress is possible and that Obamacare proved it. But first, “you have to grab the wheel.”
The political bug bit Axelrod early, as a five-year-old boy in 1960 when John Kennedy came campaigning to his east side neighborhood in New York. His baby-sitter, an African-American woman named Jessie Berry, stood him on a mailbox to absorb the excitement of the moment. Axelrod wasn’t taking notes that day, but he’s read that Kennedy told the crowd that “being a citizen is filled with peril and also hope.
“That encapsulates my views of what politics is all about,” he said.
As Axelrod said, Jessie Berry would have risked arrest or beatings then to vote in her Southern home state. Nearly 50 years later, Axelrod helped elect the first African-American president.
En route, there were memorable politicians and good stories.
In his youth, Axelrod said, he deserted the Democratic Party to work for New York mayoral candidate John Lindsay, “a liberal Republican. If you want to know what they look like, there are a couple on display at the Field Museum.”
As a cub reporter at the Tribune, Axelrod was assigned to losing candidates. When one of them, Jane Byrne, actually became mayor of Chicago, he was named City Hall Bureau Chief.
Paul Simon, an idealistic downstater, asked him to leave journalism to run his campaign. Axelrod had his doubts, but “Paul was a believer. He saw public life as a calling.” Later, when Simon ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, Axelrod coined the slogan, “Isn’t it time to believe again”–“a thread that runs through my life,” he said.
But he rejected Rod Blagojevich’s offer to run his gubernatorial campaign and began to think “that maybe this business has become too cynical for me.” Then Obama called.
Axelrod admired Obama’s brains–especially his courageous and prescient opposition to the Iraq War. Also, he “was a guy who felt comfortable in every room he walked in,” charming white voters downstate by treating them like his Kansas grandparents. And he was a gifted speaker who ignited his national image with his keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
But by the time he became president, Obama faced not only two wars but the worst financial crisis since the Depression.
“I guess it’s too late to ask for a recount,” Obama told Axelrod, and then made decision after decision–“each as unpopular as it was necessary”–to save the economy, financial system, and auto industry, culminating in his decision to pass the health care act.
Axelrod said he himself opposed this move, because it would hurt Obama politically. But the president said, “Are we supposed to put our approval rating on a shelf and admire it for eight years, or use it for something worthwhile?”
Obama’s legislative director, asked about the bill’s chances in Congress, replied, “It depends on how lucky do you feel.” Obama replied, “I’m a black guy named Barack Obama and I’m president of the United States. I feel lucky every day.”
“It’s a great honor,” Axelrod finished, “to have an opportunity to make that difference.”
Richard C. Longworth is a distinguished fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.