David Axelrod’s Curious Optimism

Obama's right hand man talks to The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove about Petraeus calling him a "spin doctor" in Bob Woodward's new book, strains with Pelosi, and post-midterm staffing (think David Plouffe).

Maybe it’s just his stiff upper lip—that is, if anyone could see his upper lip—but David Axelrod seems surprisingly cheerful for a guy who, by most accounts, should be bracing for catastrophe.

“I feel good,” President Obama’s mustachioed political maven—“Axe” to his pals—told me Thursday night in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I was saying to my wife the other day that I feel good. She was, like, shocked. She said, ‘Of course you do! It’s campaign season! You’re always energized.’ ”

In a wide-ranging conversation, the 55-year-old senior White House adviser—a longtime Chicago friend of the six-years-younger 44th president—was far jauntier than his sometimes lugubrious presence on cable television and the Sunday Washington panel shows.

Message: It’s not as bad as you think.

And that’s not just because Axelrod doesn’t want to anger Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did recently when he publicly suggested that the Democrats could lose the House.

“I love Nancy Pelosi,” Axelrod told me. “But I’ve gotten on her nerves from time to time. She’d be the first to say so.”

Yet he claimed to be much more optimistic than the conventional wisdom about a Democratic rout, predicting instead “an idiosyncratic election” in which the Dems will pick up Republican seats while losing Democratic ones—leaving the fate of a 39-seat turnover (required for the GOP to take control) very much up in the air.

“I love Nancy Pelosi,” Axelrod told me. “But I’ve gotten on her nerves from time to time. She’d be the first to say so.”

“I’m not suggesting that we don’t have a challenging election,” Axelrod told me. “I told the president two years ago, when we sat in Chicago during the transition and we heard a full briefing about what was about to happen with the economy, that two years from now our numbers aren’t going to be what they are today, and all those guys who are being heralded as geniuses are going to be decried as idiots.”

Axelrod smiled wryly when I asked if he thought it was compliment or an insult to be known as “the complete spin doctor,” as General David Petraeus is reported to have called him in Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars. “I always thought he’s been very deft on TV,” Axelrod said about the media-savvy commanding general in Afghanistan, “so I’ll just take it as a compliment.”

As the shambling strategist slumped in a high-backed chair in his West Wing office, graced by a power wall of grip-and-grins and Obama campaign paraphernalia, it was almost as if he and his boss weren’t confronting a tanking economy, a costly and possibly futile war in Afghanistan (laid out in distressing detail by Woodward), a growing chorus of critics and naysayers, a disaffected Democratic Party base, and a jubilant GOP poised to take over the House and perhaps even the Senate in the November midterm elections.

“I think there are a lot of things I can point to,” Axelrod answered when I asked if anything was going right these days at the White House. He ticked off the implementation that very day of various family-friendly features of the new health-care law (including no denial of insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions and the ability of young adults up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ policies); Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren’s presidential appointment to oversee the new consumer financial protection bureau; and at least the statistical reality of sustained private-sector job growth, never mind persistently high overall unemployment.

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Not very persuasive, I offer politely.

“It’s not a matter of whether it’s persuasive—it’s a matter of fact,” Axelrod retorted, though he acknowledged: “The devastation that this recession has visited on people was epic. Millions and millions of people lost their jobs and are looking for work. People lost their life savings. It’s been a really horrific experience for the country, and it took a long time for the bad economic decision-making that led to it, to take effect—years and years. It’s going to take some time.”

All this, during a period when several key Obama aides have been heading out the door: Budget Director Peter Orszag, reportedly bound for a cushy job on Wall Street, which possibly explains why he suddenly favors extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; economic guru Larry Summers, returning to Harvard to reclaim his tenured professorship; probably chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, getting ready to run for mayor of Chicago; and Axelrod himself, who plans to depart the White House sometime next year to help run the president’s 2012 reelection campaign. Axelrod predicted that 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, his close friend and former business partner, will come under heavy pressure from the president to join the White House staff.

As for Summers, “Larry is a valued person here. He’s been tremendously helpful and he’s an unparalleled kind of force on economic issues,” Axelrod told me, rejecting the popular Beltway notion that Summers was tossed aside as a political liability, much as George W. Bush accepted the resignation of his controversial Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the 2006 midterms. “Not even close,” Axelrod insisted. “Frankly, we always thought Larry would stay a year, and he stayed two. His tenure was running out and he had to go back. We’ve understood this for months.”

As for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, “he’s going to be here for a long time—as long as he wants,” Axelrod claimed. “Tim has done a very, very good job and he has shown a toughness and perseverance that is really admirable. At the outset, when he was really confronting the brunt of this thing and was a big target, he stuck to his guns and developed plans to shore up the financial system that people were skeptical about and ended up being really effective.”

At this point, the interview was interrupted when the office door swung open behind me and I felt a mildly unpleasant sensation on my right earlobe—which turned out to be a shirt-sleeved Emanuel flicking at it with his forefinger.

“Hey buddy!” crowed the chief of staff, whom I’ve known since he was chief fundraiser on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Then Rahm and Axe, two old Chicago hands, fell into a cryptic chat.

“I talked to her about it—everything’s cool,” Axelrod said.

“Did you Ovitz?” Emanuel asked.

“I did—and I did the thing we talked about.”

“What is an Ovitz?” I asked—somehow guessing that it wasn’t the famed Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz.

“I’m not talking to you,” Emanuel answered, and fixed his attention on his friend. “Did she like that?”

“She took it.”

“I’m going to go to a parent-teacher conference now,” Rahm said.

“Okay, good luck,” Axe replied.

“The parent here is the one that sucks—not the kids,” Rahm offered.

I asked Emanuel if he’s decided whether he’s running for mayor of Chicago yet.

“You’ll be the first to know,” he answered sarcastically. “I’m just here to make you and [Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown] happy. Piss off the Tribune and the Sun Times—what a strategy!”

Axe changed the subject. “No wrap today?”

“We did! You weren’t in it.”

“Seriously? Fuu-uu-uck!”

“I’ll call you later.”

After Emanuel skipped out the door, Axelrod indicated that his friend’s mayoral ambitions are real. “This isn’t even news,” he told me. “Rahm’s said it publicly and that was very genuine. He’s obviously thinking very hard about it, and he’s going to make a decision relatively soon. He has to. The filing deadline is November 26th.” Emanuel, of course, receives less than adulatory treatment in Overhaul, the new book by financier and former auto czar Steven Rattner, who dishes on various of the chief of staff’s impolitic comments—vehemently denied by the White House. Axelrod, like Rattner, is a former newspaper reporter (Axelrod for the Chicago Tribune, Rattner for the New York Times), and I ask him what he thinks of the serving in the White House, then writing a contemporaneous insider account of confidential meetings.

“Steve Rattner is a former journalist and apparently a practicing one again,” Axelrod answered dryly. “The one thing I would say is I don’t think anybody knew that Steve was working on a book, so it was a bit of a surprise. At least I didn’t.”

But Rattner claims that he informed everybody.

“I must have missed the memo,” Axelrod said. “But the book itself, I think, describes a process that speaks well of the president.”

Ditto Woodward’s book, Axelrod argued. Despite the detailed accounts of grave doubts and policy disputes, Axelrod said the book shows a thoughtful president who runs a thorough policy-making process and drives it toward a conclusion.

Axelrod added: “When you walk into this building you know that you’re going to be dealing with very consequential things. I’m working with a president for whom my admiration has only grown and he’s a delight to work with, and I enjoy my colleagues. I know that I will never have a better job than this.”

And yet, he’s getting ready to leave it in the next several months.

“I know that I have to move on to the next assignment sometime next year and I will. When I do, I will be happy to go home but I will always miss this because there’s nothing like it.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.