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David Axelrod still believes in Obama but won’t spin for him

Believer: My Forty Years in Politics

By David Axelrod

Penguin Press

509 pages, $35

By Gene Warner


As his top economic advisers squabbled over the correct road toward financial recovery, President Barack Obama felt the full weight of the nation’s bank crisis hanging over his head. And he was tired of waiting to act, especially after completing his nightly self-imposed homework assignment.

Determined to maintain his bond with the American people in his first few months in office, the new president retired to his White House residence each night with 10 letters from struggling Americans.

Often, Obama would reply, either in a handwritten note or even a phone call. The letters were tearing him up inside.

So on March 15, 2009, Obama summoned his economic advisers to a meeting on the banking crisis. “We all look like we have our heads up our asses,” he told his economic brass. “I’m not going to be the president who sat here and fiddled while Rome burned. I’m tired of reading letters from people who are desperate for help and are looking to us for answers we don’t have.”

A clearly frustrated Obama told his advisers he was going “home” for a haircut and dinner, and when he returned, he wanted them to present their consensus opinion to him. That bare consensus led him finally to opt against the nationalization of banks, despite the political risks of that position.

That’s the kind of inside look that author David Axelrod provides of our 44th president, and it’s a view filled with paradoxes.

Obama can be “famously chill,” but he also can get ticked off. He’s idealistic, but pragmatic. And he’ll risk making a potentially damaging political move, if his instincts tell him it’s the right thing to do.

This really is really two books.

One chronicles the careerlong campaign-trail adventures of Axelrod, one of our nation’s top media consultants and campaign managers. He gives us quick portraits of many of his clients, some highly favorable, others much more critical. So we learn more, in quick vignettes, about John Edwards, former Chicago mayors Harold Washington and Richard Daley, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon and, of course, the Clintons.

The other book provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what makes Obama tick.

Axelrod, of course, is a fan. His greatest career achievement, by far, has been the political ascendancy, all the way to the White House, of a previously unknown Chicago community organizer, who got badly beaten in his first run for Congress. So the Fox News crowd won’t find much to like here.

But it’s too easy to dismiss this work as pure political spin for Obama. Axelrod is a former top-flight Chicago Tribune reporter. Newspaper blood runs in his veins; he loves the revealing behind-the-curtain anecdotes that paint an honest picture of a man or a cause, and this isn’t the book that a lifelong public-relations whiz would write.

We see some of Obama’s warts. But this flattering portrait of him begs one obvious question: How did Obama fail to rally much of the nation behind him while in office, especially when, as Axelrod portrays him, he’s so fiercely intelligent, so empathetic to Americans’ personal hardships and so willing to compromise, if needed?

It’s easy for Obama supporters to blame all of that on Washington gridlock, Republican intransigence and Tea Party zealotry. Maybe it will take decades for historians to answer that question.

But Axelrod takes a whack at it, in his description of the steep political price Obama paid in getting health care reform passed.

“His standing with moderate, swing voters had taken a hit,” the author writes. “Elected as an apostle of change in Washington, he had compromised when he had to, employed the traditional tools of the trade to achieve his goal, and jammed the law through on a straight party-line vote. In doing so, he had ignited a blazing grassroots opposition that would cost him his House majority and bedevil him for the remainder of his presidency.”

Axelrod also says Obama has little patience for officeholders whose actions are guided by purely parochial concerns, namely hanging onto their jobs. “That hint of moral superiority and disdain for politicians who put elections first has hurt Obama as [a] negotiator,” he writes.

The author gets top marks for his crisp writing, his sharp eye for spotting a telling anecdote and his newspaperman’s honesty.

While the Obama half of the book certainly is more newsworthy, this reviewer enjoyed the mini-portraits of other Axelrod clients just as much, if not more.

The anecdotes are what make this 500-page tome worth the time and effort.

The best one, perhaps – too good to spoil here – involves Obama’s perplexing decision to delete a seemingly harmless joke about Osama bin Laden from his comedic speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner in the spring of 2011.

There are plenty of other beauties, like this one from the night that Chicago Mayor Harold Washington was re-elected, after having beaten Jane Byrne earlier in the 1987 Democratic primary. In the giddiness of the election-night victory, Washington was physically strong enough to stop the Rev. Jesse Jackson from lifting both their arms in the familiar victory salute.

“I’ll be damned if I was going to let that SOB lift my arm up,” Washington whispered to Axelrod as they left the stage. “This isn’t HIS night.”

Gene Warner is a veteran Buffalo News reporter as well as a veteran observer of presidential politics.