CHICAGO — David Axelrod walks into the coffee shop wearing a black T-shirt bearing the logo of the Iowa Cubs, the Triple-A farm team of the Chicago Cubs. Axelrod’s boss, Barack Obama, is an avid Chicago White Sox fan, but it is unlikely Obama would object.
Obama has publicly supported the concept of the “principled sports fan,” someone who “stands up” for his team “even when his team is losing.” Team Obama has had many more wins than losses this political season, is poised to lock up a majority of pledged delegates to the Democratic convention and is leading among the superdelegates who will determine the nominee.
Still, it has been a grueling campaign, and Axelrod looks a little tired. He orders oatmeal and a cup of blackberry sage tea. (And though a profile of him in The New York Times Magazine last year described his mustache as always looking “damp,” he managed to keep it dry throughout our breakfast.)
“You are never so smart as you look when you’re winning, and you’re never as dumb as you look when you’re losing,” Axelrod says. “That has sustained me through very hard times.”
After an election is over, the media usually decide that everything the winner did was an act of genius and everything the loser did was a terrible mistake, but Axelrod knows the truth is far more complicated than that.
Campaigns make bad and good decisions, and maybe the winning campaign makes more good than bad ones or maybe sometimes it just gets lucky. In any case, the smart campaigns realize their defeats are far more important than their victories, because defeats teach lessons that victories do not.
“After we lost the New Hampshire primary,” Axelrod says, “the next day, on about three hours of sleep, [Obama] said, ‘I think what happened yesterday was right. When you are the new guy, it is not supposed to be easy. It was like Icarus flying too close to the sun. We have to earn this. But it persuaded me this is the right battle.’”
We in the media make way too much of campaign staff. One reason is that the candidates recede farther and farther from us every four years and we deal more and more with the staff. Secondly, campaigns have gotten so complicated and have so many moving parts that it no longer seems possible for a single figure — the candidate — to really be in charge. (And presidential candidates often complain that they are sealed off from reality in the “steel bubble” of the campaign and find it hard to make decisions from the road.) And it is the nature of the media to want to pull back the curtain and see who is pulling the levers.
But campaigns are almost always won and lost by the candidates themselves. Obama wanted a “drama-free” staff, and that is what he has gotten. I have known Axelrod since he was a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and I was at the Chicago Sun-Times. While he can be very tough and determined, he is also invariably calm and soft-spoken.
He has been doing politics for 24 years now, and he has learned a few things along the way:
When he was running Paul Simon’s successful U.S. Senate race in 1984, one of Simon’s campaign offices in Chicago was defaced with swastikas out of the mistaken belief that Simon (no relation to me) was Jewish. Axelrod saw an easy solution, and Simon began mentioning in his speeches that he was the son of Lutheran missionaries.
So today, in a nation in which 15 percent of voters think (mistakenly) that Obama is a Muslim, I was not surprised when the Obama campaign recently began circulating leaflets with a picture of Obama standing in a pulpit with a large cross in the background and saying that Obama “felt a beckoning of the spirit and accepted Jesus Christ into his life.”
At breakfast, I ask Axelrod to pick a campaign moment that says something about Obama, and Axelrod mentions not a victory but a defeat: the night Obama lost the popular vote in both Ohio and Texas.
“He is at his best at our worst moments,” Axelrod says. That night, Obama went into his campaign headquarters to shake everybody’s hand and to try to lift the spirits of the staffers and volunteers, especially those who were very young, working on their first campaign and absolutely crestfallen.
“He told them to keep their chins up,” Axelrod says, “but he also had a legal pad full of the things the campaign did wrong and right. And he always acknowledges his own deficiencies. He said: ‘There are many things I could have done better. We can learn from this.’”
“It has been a debilitating process in many ways,” Axelrod says, “but it has had value. He is a stronger and better candidate for having had to struggle.”