David Axelrod is the former chief strategist and senior advisor to President Barack Obama. He currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Chicago. He is author of the memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and David Axelrod discuss how Obama was able to build a winning coalition in 2008 that included many moderate voters; whether, despite the polarized state of American politics, a future presidential candidate could replicate that success; and what it would take for Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump in 2024.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: When you met with Obama in Chicago two decades ago, what made you look at the guy and think he could really be president?
David Axelrod: I wish I could claim that kind of clarity, clairvoyance and judgment to see a 33-year-old guy and say he’s going to be president. But I will tell you someone did. I had a friend in Chicago, Bettylu Saltzman. She was kind of a doyenne of liberal politics in Chicago. And she called me one day in 1992 and she said, “I just met the most extraordinary young man, and I think you ought to meet him, because I think he's going to be the first black president.” And I thought, well, that's pretty grandiose. But then I met with him.
He was obviously very, very bright and thoughtful in a way that stood out to me among people in politics, certainly, though he wasn't in politics then. But he said that he was interested in a career in public service. He had been the president of the Harvard Law Review, it was a national story at the time when he was elected, because it broke down this barrier. And I figured he could have written his ticket at any law firm or corporation, and he came back to Chicago to run a voter registration drive and went to work at a small civil and labor rights firm. And he said, “I want to be about something larger than myself. And I really want to serve, and I'm not sure how to do it. But that's what I want to do.” I left with the impression that this is a guy who should be in public office, he would be a huge asset. I wasn't humming “Hail to the Chief” when I left that lunch. But, clearly, he had great capacities. It was only later in time that I allowed myself to think that this guy could actually be a major force on the national stage.
Mounk: When you first met with Obama, what were the things that were giving you pause? What were the things you thought he needed to work on to make the big time?
Axelrod: Right up to when he decided to run for president, he asked me to write a strategic memo arguing the case for why he should or shouldn't run. And there were a lot of reasons why I thought he should run. One concern I had was whether he was tough enough to survive what I knew would be an extraordinarily tough process. I had the advantage of having participated in that process several times—the relentless scrutiny and the absurd kinds of tests that you're put through, which I actually think are an important part of evaluating who could be president. But what I worried about was because we had done a Senate race in 2004, in which we were running against Alan Keyes, who was kind of a forerunner of today's kind of populist, religious right. Keyes wasn't going to win, he wasn't gonna come close. We were ahead by 50 points. But he had the capacity to irritate Obama in ways that no one has before or since. We had three debates and Keyes probably won some of those just by aggravating Obama. I was watching the news and there's footage of Obama and Keyes almost getting into a fist fight. And Obama was the one who provoked it. He had objected to Keyes saying that Obama had the “slaveholder’s position” on abortion. He constantly poked Obama about whether he was genuine in his religiosity, and whether he was authentic as a black man—various tender points. And so I called him that night and I said, “What the hell? We’re ahead by 50 points. Why are we in a boxing match?” And he said, “That guy just gets under my skin.”
Mounk: Machiavelli says that to be a statesman, you need to have luck, but you need to seize the luck as well. So there needs to be a kind of combination between your qualities and the qualities of the moment. What were the qualities of that moment that made it possible for a candidate like Obama to win? What, in a broader cultural sense, made Obama possible? And do you think that something similar is still possible?
Axelrod: Let me deal with the first thing first because the second one's more complicated. In 2003 and 2004, there was a tremendous sense of jaundice about politics in the country. There was a real backlash against the war in Iraq. Obama was the only major candidate who had spoken out against it from the beginning. But there was a larger sense that Washington was wrapped up in a kind of small ball competition between the red team and the blue team for who would hold power without regard to what they would do with it, and that politicians were fundamentally self-interested, and (this has become much worse in our politics) the incentive was to weaponize problems rather than solve them. And here comes Obama who ran against all of that. And the reason he was able to do it was not just because he was against the war, but because he was fundamentally assaulting the prevailing politics of Washington and offering a more hopeful alternative in which people could—even if they differed—work together, in which we could bridge some of the great divides in our society. And I think people really wanted it at that moment. Remember, this is a guy who carried the state of Indiana in that first election—who carried North Carolina, who almost carried Montana and Missouri. He really did capture the imagination of the country and provoked people to think about what was possible and what was desirable. Obviously, there was a tremendous reaction to that. And we're in a reactionary moment right now.
I do have this great man theory that you need a leader, a charismatic leader who's well-intended and smart to move the country along. But the thing that worries me about today is technology and the pace of technology. I do a lot of things with Karl Rove, and he’s a student of the McKinley era in American politics, and he's hopeful because we’ve been through these periods of upheaval before and we've always emerged from them. The difference with this one is how intrusive it is, how big data has allowed social media to infiltrate our lives and essentially organize us. They're not ideologically driven. They're driven by algorithms, and the inspiration of those algorithms is to shove us into our silos in which our views are sometimes informed, but always affirmed, and everybody outside the silo is alien and threatening. And how do we overcome that? That remains to be seen. I mean, I really believe in American democracy and the ability to grab the wheel of history and turn it. But the wheel is tougher to turn right now.
There are a lot of things that have worked to split us apart since 2008, but one of the reasons that we got through the primary process was that most of the other Democratic candidates, including Hillary and John Edwards, had a very hard-edged assault on the Republicans as the fundamental element of their campaign. We did not. Our assault was on politics writ large, not on one or the other party. And it was very much about unifying the country, not dividing it up. But we got away with it in part because he was against the war, and so that gave him a lot of running room with people on the left, and he was African American. And so that gave him some bona fides that we didn't have to claim but were just there.
Barack Obama spent tons of time in the working class, white, rural and small town communities in that campaign. And showing up actually matters in campaigns—showing respect, solicitude, a willingness to listen is really important. We've sort of abandoned that. Now we could go to our areas of strength in about eight states, and that's the whole presidential campaign.
Mounk: Beyond that, I feel like when you look at the 2008 presidential map, it's striking which states were in play and which states Obama won. And it seems to me that, rather than reforming the Senate (which is just something that is never going to happen), the Democratic Party should make a play for the states which Obama was able to win.
Axelrod: I couldn't agree with you more. You know, Biden only won Wisconsin by 20,000 votes, Georgia by 12,000, Arizona by 11,000. And he won in part because he got 33% of white working class voters, and Hillary only got 28%. Small variances can make a big difference. I will say that I understand the frustration of people when you have issues on which a large majority of Americans agree (some gun safety laws would be a good example) and you cannot get them through. There is a feeling—I don't think it's unjustified—that at times we're experiencing a tyranny of the minority, and that's a perversion of the system. But the answer, as you suggest, is not to bray about things that aren't going to happen. It's to evaluate why you're not competitive in some of the places you're not competitive where you might be, and then make an effort to compete there and have a message that has some appeal to people in those areas. If we're going to be one country, then we need to be better listeners. One of the things that has propelled Trump and one of the reasons you can't win crushing majorities is that he has managed to make the dismissal of him by elites a kind of parable of how the elites dismiss others. And he has rallied the people who feel disdained, who feel neglected, who feel like the system is rigged against them.
Here's what we need to confront: the Democratic Party has become the Progressive Party. It has become largely a kind of cosmopolitan, metropolitan party. And while I think Democrats still maintain a sense of solicitude for people who need help, there is also this kind of Margaret Mead approach, like “We're here to help.” And I think that that is not lost on people. And, so, I think some introspection on the part of progressives and Democrats is important, and, as you've written extensively, there's identity politics on both sides of the divide. Democracy requires some sense of common interest, common investment, and common humanity. And, you know, we can't go down this road in which we just dismiss half or a third of the country. Obama didn't do that. I know that, in Washington, his reputation was someone who was aloof, and I used to hear from politicians in Washington that he just doesn't like people. And I used to say to them, “No, he likes people, he just doesn't like you.” And, you know, I was with him through those years of campaigning, and on the trail, I was with him in the White House when he would, every single day someone would write him a letter (he'd get 10 letters a day that they would curate for him to reflect the kind of mail that was coming in), and he often would call those people, or write them, and it would influence how he thought about things. And his greatest fear was losing touch with people. He had a great capacity for relating to people broadly. And I think that's an important quality if you're going to do what you suggested some minutes ago, which is reverse this course we're on.
Mounk: One of the things that strikes me is that after 2016 there was a huge debate in Democratic circles about whether we need to rally the base or to persuade people. And Obama was very effective in 2008 at doing both—he had a huge turnout operation but he also managed to win over a huge number of independents.
What would the core to a strategy be that tries to replicate that today? Or do you think that the same would not be possible today?
Axelrod: There is less and less sort of movable vote, because party has now become a cultural identity. That said, I still think that, ultimately, you win not just by mobilization but by commanding majorities among moderates and among independents. And, by the way, the Democratic Party is not all a left party. Most people who call themselves Democrats still would describe themselves as sort of center left Democrats. The activists in the party are obviously more left just as the activists in the Republican Party are more right. But, look, Biden was the moderate candidate in the race. Now I know people say, well, he took these left positions, so he won. If you go back and look at that Democratic Convention, which I thought was brilliantly done, the things they emphasized were his faith, his ties to the military, his Scranton background and his working class background. The cultural signifying that was going on from that convention was really, really important. I also remember him standing up in debates and press situations and talking about the fact that he is not a socialist and he disagrees with Bernie Sanders on some issues and so on. He took his progressive positions on economic issues (he probably felt most comfortable doing that; that was certainly what the party demanded), but he didn't go as far as others on some things, and I think culturally he sent signals that were really, really important. And I don't think if you run as a sort of Margaret Mead Democrat, you're going to win. Years ago, someone said about organized liberals (and I consider myself a liberal) that they love humanity but hate people. I think that we need to start looking at each other as people again.
And there are also other factors here that may come into play. If Trump and Biden are the nominees, you could have a third and a fourth party. Cornel West is apparently planning to run on the Green Party line, and there are certainly states where, in 2016, the Green Party candidate exceeded the margin by which Trump won, and you have to assume that there weren't a whole lot of Trump voters among her supporters. That's a problem. And Cornel West will get some votes. How many, I don't know. But when you talk about the margins I spoke of earlier, like Wisconsin, 20,000 votes: I guarantee, around Madison, West is going to get some votes. And then you have this other issue of No Labels. Biden needs a binary choice, as he pretty much had in 2020. He may not get that.
Mounk: Why is it so close? I do, for all of my questions lamenting the moral and political mistakes of the Democratic Party, think that Donald Trump is an existential threat to our political system, and that a second term by Trump would be much worse than the first. I think we're sort of sleepwalking into this election where perhaps it's 50-50 odds that we somehow manage to avoid Trump. Perhaps it’s closer to 60-40. But none of that should in any way be comforting. So isn't it time for Democrats to do something? And I don't know what that something is.
Axelrod: Well, what is that something?
Mounk: Is it other Democrats running in a contested primary against Biden?
Axelrod: Here’s the issue. And you and I may disagree on this. I've been critical of Biden when I thought he deserved to be criticized, even though we served together and I know him well. But I think he's done a really good job under very difficult circumstances. When you look at navigating the pandemic, the situation in Ukraine and the leadership he has provided in pulling the NATO allies together. Some of the legislation that has passed will have positive generational implications—infrastructure, the energy stuff, and some of the healthcare things that he's done. That said, the issue, and I've been very frank about this, is age. I mean, his team will say “Well, just look at him, look at what he's done, look at what he's accomplished.” But the issue here is not political, it's actuarial. How is he going to be when he's 84 and 85? Republicans are going to elevate the Vice President to co-star status here. And that will be a concern, because she's not trading very high in polling right now.
When you say Democrats should do something—there are Democrats who are concerned about this. There are Democrats who would love the president to cash in his chips and claim the credit that he rightly deserves as, I think, a historically good president. But he intends to run, and as long as he intends to run, and as time goes on, that becomes a self-executing decision because it's too late to have a campaign. If he decides to run, the fear is that he has enough strength and affection within the Democratic Party (where he has an approval rating in the 80s) that someone will run against him, they will damage him, and he will be more vulnerable in a race against Trump. That's really the dynamic that's going on. I don't think people are oblivious to the risks here. But I think the question is assessing which is the riskier path. Now, there's personal risk associated, too—if you take the shot and miss, your career may well be over.
Mounk: I get all of those arguments. And I'm certainly concerned both about how other candidates running might damage Biden and make it more likely that Trump gets elected in 2024. But let's keep that position to the side at the moment. I agree with you that he's had, in many ways, a good presidency. And yet he is quite unpopular in the polls—not horrendously unpopular, but distinctly unpopular in the polls, and is running head to head against Donald Trump even without those third- and fourth party candidates in the mix. And so he needs to, in that case, change something about his presentation or his positioning, or we're basically just accepting a coin-flip’s odds of Donald Trump being back in the White House. What can Biden do?
Axelrod: Well, let me just say, we are so polarized as a country. I mean, we went 53-47 in 2008. And then, you know, it was an electoral landslide. But it’s not as huge a margin as you might think. Like I said, party identity has become a sort of cultural identity for lots and lots of Americans. That's limiting. But in terms of Biden—you look at where the economy was then and where it is now, inflation is going down, and it may be that polling lags economic improvements. It may be that, over time, people will recognize that things are better, and we'll give him credit for it. And I think they'll probably mount a campaign to tell people what he's achieved. And to me, the contrast that works is you look at this Republican Congress, and the kind of crazy crap that they are consumed by, and you contrast this with the kind of very tangible gains for people that Biden has focused on. I think you want to set that example, but, at the end of the day, you have to lean into what the alternative is, and I think what this portends is a very negative campaign. As you point out, Trump 2.0 would be the Delta variant of democracy—it'd be a thousand times more virulent and harder to control. And everyone should focus on that. They have veered so far from mainstream positionings, are so consumed by these cultural issues and obsessive retaliation and so on. And I think this is why Democrats did better than anybody thought they would, or should (by historical standards) in 2022. I think people feared exactly what they're seeing right now. I do think that the contrast will be, or should be, persuasive. You've got to lean into the contrast.
But the one question that I can't answer is what he's going to be like when he's 85. Biden is very competent in the job, he is less good as a communicator, and image is important in politics. And there is a sense, coming out of the pandemic, and with all the change that's coming at people, that things are out of control and he's not in command. There is that image with some of these voters that you need to address, and part of it will be telling the story of how he's been in command and what he's delivered. But it's going to be hard in a very, very difficult communications environment in which people are being fed a lot of negative memes.
I'm not sitting here with reams of research as I was when I was doing the Obama campaign. That's actually something I miss, is waiting up to one in the morning so that I can get that evening's polling data and prepare my thoughts for the next day. I don't have that. But it's a messy track. And there's no denying that. I do think that a different candidate might have a better chance depending on who that candidate is. But I wouldn't underestimate the sort of lingering cultural connections that Biden can invoke. But I'm not sure that either party will be fielding the most competitive candidate.
Mounk: It looks like neither party will be.
I know it's a little unfair to ask people for percentages, but if it is an election of Biden versus Trump with Cornel West and some form of No Labels candidate (perhaps Joe Manchin) what chance do you give Biden? What chance do you give Trump?
Axelrod: I still think Biden has the edge. And a lot of it depends on what happens between now and then with Trump's legal cases. If he were convicted in some of these cases, particularly the federal cases, particularly the January 6 case—these are burdens that I think could prove too much, these bricks that are being put on his load. I keep saying that I don't know if, in the Republican race, whether they're kryptonite or battery packs; I think they actually have helped him in the Republican race. I think there are limits to that. Certainly, they haven't helped with independent voters. So that's one variable. It makes some difference who No Labels puts on their ticket (Joe Manchin’s a Democrat), but I'm not sure it makes that much of a difference. In 1980, John Anderson, who was a liberal Republican congressman from Illinois, ran as an Independent in that race, and I think he got 7% [6.6%] of the vote, (someone out there will fact check me). But most of those came from Carter, not Reagan, even though he was a Republican. So the No Labels thing is a big variable. And if they get going, and if they actually get on the ballot in fifty states—and most importantly, in the eight most competitive states—I think that could be a real problem for Biden.
One of the things that Democrats should be doing is everything they can to discourage the No Labels party and to try to persuade Cornell West that no good is going to come from tipping this race to Trump. I don’t want to compare George W. Bush to Trump, but I know that a lot of Democrats look back at that election as a watershed election because of the war and so on. It was won because Ralph Nader was on the ballot in Florida and got 80,000 votes, and Al Gore lost by 5,000. People shouldn't lose that bit of history. That can happen again.
Mounk: As a last question, what is something that Obama did right either in his campaign in 2008 or in his presidency that Democrats ignore today?
Axelrod: Well, the sort of prosaic answer is showing up—like, actually showing up in places where people don't expect you. First of all, we had to show up because we were running a primary campaign in fifty states, and that required us to go to places where we wouldn't even be competitive in a general election. But the impact of actually going to those places on him and on the public was important—it’s harder with a sitting president. But that's one thing.
But our basic feeling was, let's emphasize those issues that are of broadest concern. And so we really, really spoke a lot about economics and not just the way the economy was, but the way the economy was going and the dangers of an economy in which large numbers of people were basically left out of the gains. And I think that has proven out, and that process has accelerated. Certainly, the financial crisis has accelerated it. And then the third thing is that we acknowledged that free trade and globalization became part of Democratic orthodoxy. And I think that they are part of the reality of our times. But we were not, as a party, sensitive enough to the dislocation that certain regions and certain communities would face because of it. And I think we were more sensitive to it in our campaign.
The other thing that we couldn't avoid was the financial crisis. We had to take the steps we took to try and keep the economy from collapsing. But to the person who's sitting in the middle of the country, who lost their home or their job, their impression was: if you're really poor, you get handouts (I don't like the characterization, but that's what they would say); and if you're a Wall Street financier who fleeces the country, you get bailouts. And we're left to fend for ourselves. And I think those two things have kind of radicalized a section of the country. What we did was express awareness of the downsides of these policies. Our 2012 campaign for re-election was a very populist campaign. But we focused on those things, we did not focus on cultural issues. Now, this is a different time. Obviously, abortion rights is going to be a big piece of this. But in 2016, I found myself asking “What is in the rhetoric of the Democratic Party right now that has anything meaningful to say to my neighbors in the rural areas of Michigan?” We need to keep that in mind.
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