Synopsis: The presidential election season is in full swing, and candidates are doing their best to make themselves attractive to the primary voters and to the general public for the November election. Our guest was in the thick of things during the last two election cycles and talks about how Barack Obama got elected to the highest office in the land. He also offers some insight into the president’s terms in office, the rambunctious candidates on the stump now, and the parties’ strategies in this campaign season.
Host: Gary Price. Guest: David Axelrod, former campaign strategist and senior White House advisor for President Barack Obama, and author of the book, Believer: My forty years in politics.
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David Axelrod: A political guru looks back & ahead
Gary Price: In the middle of the primary campaign, there’s no shortage of political conversation these days. In some ways, especially on the Republican side, this campaign has been a throwback to the uncivilized days of 150 years ago… Where candidates didn’t so much as debate the issues as scream insults at each other. And even seasoned political strategists have no idea where it’s all going.
David Axelrod: The reason it’s so hard to predict is that the patterns of the past have been disrupted. The Republican Party generally nominates the establishment candidate at the end — in this case likely Rubio –Romney emerged, McCain emerged, Bush emerged. But this is a different kind of Republican Part.
Price: That’s former political strategist David Axelrod, senior political commentator for CNN, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, and author of Believer: My 40 years in politics…
Axelrod: Trump and Cruz together have commanded a large share of the vote. So it’s not clear to me that the establishment wins in this case.
Price: Axelrod was Barack Obama’s political strategist for both of his presidential campaigns, and senior advisor to the president in between. And he says it should be no surprise that many voters are looking for the exact opposite of Obama this time around. Axelrod says it happens whenever a two-term president leaves office. It was part of Obama’s appeal in 2008 when he was about as far from outgoing president George W. Bush as you could get.
Axelrod: When you look at the sort of hard-edged nature of the Republican primary and the fact that a guy like Donald Trump has done so well. I mean, Donald Trump is the antithesis of Barack Obama. He’s as impulsive, as not deliberative, as coarse as Obama is the opposite. He doesn’t allow for nuance, he doesn’t see areas of gray.
Price: Sometimes, Axelrod says, “Americans like it when their presidents want to punch someone in the face.” and after eight years of Obama’s uncanny coolness, now looks like one of those times…
Axelrod: Obama is a guy who is willing to punch someone in the face if there’s no other way to resolve a conflict, and I think that there are a lot of folks, particularly on the Republican side, who are in the punch-first-ask-questions-later mode, hence you get the Donald Trumps, the Ted Cruz’s rising to the top of that race. And it’s why some of the governors have fallen to the bottom.
Price: Axelrod says even Democratic voters have shown their desire for somebody who’s not just like Obama in the surprising rise of Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton…
Axelrod: He’s been a very good candidate. You know he’s, in his own rumpled way, a very compelling, authentic tribune of his point of view. I think he’s been rather narrow in his focus, but he’s certainly addressed things that are of great concern not just to Democrats, but everyone. But I think that she (Clinton) has a broader reach which will be demonstrated over time, including the ability to relate to the broad diversity of the Democratic Party and minority constituencies. But Bernie’s done a great job. He’s raised a lot of money in small donations. That will allow him to remain in the race for quite a while. You know what drives candidates out of races is when they don’t have the resources to run any longer. I don’t think he’s going to confront that problem in this campaign.
Price: Axelrod believes that Clinton will win the nomination, but only after a long struggle over the soul of the party. Many Sanders backers don’t think the administration has kept its progressive promises when it’s had the chance. But Axelrod says that ignores political reality…
Axelrod: The president has always been someone who believes that you fight for as much progress as you can get and that if you get 80% of what you want that’s better than nothing, as opposed to those who say you should get 100%. I really respect Bernie Sanders and I think he’s run a great campaign but I heard him say in a recent debate that he helped write The Affordable Care Act. And he did contribute one element to it, he was a supporter of community health clinics, but he also threatened ‘til the end not to vote for it because there was no public option in The Affordable Care Act. And there was no public option for a reason, which was there were a number of Democrats who wouldn’t support it, they felt it went too far. And this is the question I always raise with him which is, “How are you going to pass single-payer healthcare when we couldn’t even get a public option through a Democratic congress?”
Price: The Obama legacy will be the subject of a great many commentaries over the next year… And the affordable care act will top the list of both his supporters and detractors. Inside the White House, Axelrod says the certain difficulty of passing such a bill scared off many of Obama’s advisors…
Axelrod: I knew it was gonna be hard. I was really torn because I advised the president on politics and I told him, you know, as much as I think we need to do this I don’t know if this is the right time. And he said if we don’t do it in the first two years, we won’t get it done. And he said the consequences of not getting it done would be disastrous in terms of more and more people without insurance, higher and higher costs, and so on, to the government, to families, to businesses. And he said “What are we supposed to do? Put our approval rating on the shelf and admire it for eight years? Or are we supposed to draw down on it to do things that are going to make a lasting difference for the country?” And, you know, I always say I like him so much because he listened to me so little. That was a really, really momentous decision on his part. Yes, we paid some price for it. There’s no doubt about it. But I agree with him. We’re not there to perpetuate ourselves in office; we’re there to get things done.
Price: However, president Obama’s legacy will also include criticism for ignoring political reality: Trying to reach across the aisle long after it was clear the opposition was having nothing of it…
Axelrod: One of my great disappointments has been we ran with the hope of bridging great divisions within our country. Everybody remembers the speech that Obama gave in 2004 in which he said, “We’re not red states and blue states – we’re the United States of America.” But, you know, when we came to Washington what we confronted was the situation where the Democratic Party had been ascending and taken a whole bunch of territory away from the Republicans, and we were in the midst of a crisis. And I think a strategic decision was made by the Republican Party and from a clinical standpoint I understood it, which was there were a lot of lousy decisions that are going to have to be made to get the economy out of the soup and let’s let him make it because it’ll make it easier for us to run against him if we’re not co-authors of these policies.
Price: Axelrod says that forced the president into a more partisan position, working with only Democrats if he wanted to get anything done. And Obama didn’t like it…
Axelrod: I think it was really sort of a shock to his system because here in Illinois he was known for forging bipartisan coalitions in the Illinois Senate. He was famous for it. And he had bipartisan relationships in the Senate that allowed him to work across party lines on pieces of legislation. The fact that he couldn’t do that as president was, I think, surprising to him and disappointing to him.
Price: The president seems to know that’s an unfortunate failure, as he said in a speech at the Illinois state capital just a few weeks ago…
President Obama: I had to acknowledge that one of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics. I was able to be part of that here, and yet couldn’t translate it the way I wanted to into our politics in Washington.
Price: And while people are complaining bitterly about gridlock, Axelrod says that’s how the political system is built. We’re supposed to have gridlock when there are great divisions in the country. Still, Axelrod calls himself a believer, and so named his book. But while most of his memoir is about his relationship with Barack Obama, Axelrod’s “belief” isn’t in just one man. It’s all about an idea. And he’s taken on few political clients who don’t share it…
Axelrod: The thing that is common among them is the shared belief and the belief that I have that politics is a calling, it’s not simply a business or a vehicle for self-aggrandizement or advancement. It’s an opportunity to serve and to make a difference. It’s the chance to grab the wheel of history and turn it in the right direction. And I’ve seen great leaders do that, and I’ve seen the impact on people’s lives. I believe in politics as a vehicle to make positive change. And nothing, despite the messiness of our politics – and it is messy, although not any more messy than it’s been at times in the past in our history, it’s just amplified more our media – despite all of that, I’ve seen the good that can be done. To me that makes it a very worthy pursuit.
Price: A lot of people would say that these days, such idealism is popular only with starry-eyed dreamers. So why has “hope” gotten a bad name?
Axelrod: Well I think partly because we live in times of really profound change, and particularly changes in our economy. I mean, there are changes in the culture as well, but changes in our economy, rapid, rapid changes that technology and globalization have wrought, and we live in a time when the median income is exactly where it was in 1999. So there’s a sense of frustration about that. And, you know, there are all kinds of other issues that have arisen as a result of the revolution in media and how people process all of that. There’s a lot going on out there that dismays people. And the fact that the political system hasn’t responded to it as dramatically as people had hoped or wanted I think has added to that.
Price: But even if it’s framed in different words than “hope” and “change,” Axelrod says that’s really what almost all successful political candidates are selling. Donald Trump, for example, talks about making America great again. It’s the same thing.
Axelrod: You know hope is a durable thing. I think that that is imbedded in us, ingrained in us and I do think that, ultimately, the candidates who will prevail are candidates who give people some hope for the future, in whatever way they do it. I don’t think that a grinding “Woe is me, we’re stuck, we can’t get out of where we are” is ultimately a winning strategy. So, I still think there is a market for hope. It may be disguised as something else, but people want to believe the future can be better. And that’s what’s going to drive their vote, and their choice.
Price: You can find out more about David Axelrod and all our guests through links on our website, Viewpointsonline.net. You can also find archives of our segments there, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.