Inside the Obama campaign - an interview with David Axelrod
In his first UK interview since Obama won in 2012, David Axelrod talks to British political strategist David Muir exclusively for Juncture on how he masterminded Obama's recovery from mid-term defeat and presidential victory.
David Muir: There were a lot of people running round Washington with their hair on fire after the results of the mid-terms in 2010. Did you start to have some doubts at that point?
David Axelrod: If I reacted every time people in Washington were running around with their hair on fire I'd have jumped off a tall building by now. One of the things about working for Obama all of these years is that we've been written out of the script so many times, you get used to it. My reaction to the mid-terms was firstly, yes it was a disaster. But I told the president that the seeds of his re-election may actually have been planted that day; the Republicans might have had a great night but the winners in the party were really the most strident Republican voices - the Tea Party and the social conservatives. The party was tugged far to the right on that night, and whoever would emerge as the Republican nominee would have to pass through that toll-booth in order to get to the nomination. I knew that toll was going to be very costly. So, although I thought it was a disaster from a governance sense, it was an opportunity from a political sense, and that bore out in the run up to the 2012 election.
DM: While the mid-term elections were bad for the Democrats, there were some interesting results. Colorado's Senator Michael Bennet defeated the Republican candidate Ken Buck in the 2010 election - did you look at races like Colorado, and the coalition that Bennet formed to win that primary to give you insight into how you could fight 2012?
DA: We did. We knew Colorado was going to be one of our battleground states and Bennet created a roadmap for how to win it, putting together a coalition of young people, women and Hispanics, so that obviously was going to be part of our formula in 2012. That win was a glimmer of encouragement in a sea of despair.
DM: Even under incredible duress your team was one that hung together. How did you go about putting your team together, and how did you manage to keep them working so tightly?
DA: First of all I was lucky because when we began the campaign in late 2006-early 2007 we really didn't have a big team - Obama only ran for the Senate in 2004. At the start, it was me and a small group. Robert Gibbs (communications director) was there, but no one else. David Plouffe got involved later as campaign manager. So when Obama decided to run, I was like Danny Ocean in Ocean's 11. I went around to the best people I knew in various disciplines and said, 'are you in or are you out?'
I made a point of two things: firstly of course they had to be very talented; secondly I really put an emphasis on people who didn't work in Washington. I did that partly because it was hard to find people in Washington willing to take on the Clintons, but really because I myself had made a career working outside the beltway, and I thought that gave you a better gauge on the public, on the voters, living in a place where people weren't discussing Politico.com every night. So I assembled a group that I thought would be both strong and coherent, and also just people I liked.
But we also had a candidate in Obama who really prized that coherence and prized that sense of teamwork. In the very first meeting we had as a team, he said we would have just three rules:
- We were going to run a grassroots campaign because that was the only kind of politics he knew and believed in, and it was the only way he thought he was going to win.
- There ought to be joy in the pursuit of competing for the presidency. It's a deadly serious business but we were all in it for a reason - to be able to try and move the country in the right direction. It ought to be hard but it also ought to be fun.
- He didn't want anyone turning on anyone else. 'If I see people leaking information on each other or pointing fingers then I'm going to ask you to leave', he said, 'because we're going to rise or fall together'.
The tone was always set by the guy at the top, but these relationships were also born in a long and difficult battle in 2007 and 2008, and now we're like a very tight band. Everybody understands what instrument they play and how to blend those instruments. That's a great advantage, and one I wish we'd had in 2004. But in terms of our reaction to the 2010 mid-terms as a team, the truth is that there was an interregnum in early 2011 when we weren't talking so much as a group. David Plouffe had taken over from me (as senior adviser to the president) in the Whitehouse and was consumed in what he was doing there, and he's a little more solitary than I am about these things.
We hit bottom in the summer of 2011; in the spring and summer of 2011 we had this confrontation with the Republicans over whether or not we were going to raise the debt ceiling. That was something that had been essentially a routine matter for time immemorial and it became a confrontation over deficits. It was an interesting fight because while we lost the war, we won the messaging battle going away. The president's message - that we needed to deal with the deficit in a balanced way and raise taxes on the wealthy so that we could make investments in things like education and research and development - really made sense to people. And it made sense to people by about 20 points over the Republican message. It wasn't persuasive to House Republicans and therefore we had this horrendous standoff. But we also gained some insights that would help us move forward.
And in terms of strategy it came together in the fall of 2011, and the group really re-engaged. It was clear that the president needed to take his efforts outside of Washington and the four walls of the Whitehouse to go right to the people. It was clear as well that he had to make a strong case around what we needed to get the economy moving, and a case for balance. So that's what he did - right after Labour Day, on December 8th in 2011, when he made a speech to congress. I would say that was the beginning of the resurgence of Obama.
So that's partly how the seeds of our victory had been planted in the rubble of 2010. But we also began to see the Republican race forming and when the debates started in September, as we predicted, they were very much driven by the right of the Republican party. We saw Mitt Romney run to the right of his Republican opponents on one issue after another in order to defeat them. He ran to the right of Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, on immigration, and used some very harsh language. We knew that the Hispanic vote was going to be determinative in at least three states - Nevada, Colorado and Florida. A little later on he ran to the right of Rick Santorum on social issues, and made his pledge to abolish federal funding of Planned Parenthood, a women's health organisation which is a target of the right because they perform abortions, but they also perform breast examinations and mammograms, and all kinds of other services to many women across the country. That was a red flag for women. As well as this, Romney's behaviour in these debates - like his challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet, and arguing with voters about whether corporations are people or not - was almost like a caricature of himself. There was a series of things that softened him and the Republican party up for us in terms of reaching the key swing voters in the electorate.
So the honest truth is, while there were moments of concern, I never really felt that we couldn't win or that we wouldn't win. I viewed it as a strategic challenge and the main challenge was to make sure we cast our message properly, but also that we cast the race as a choice and didn't allow it to become a referendum. The Republicans gave us a lot of ammunition with which to do that.
DM: You did some extensive research on what the electorate thought about the economy. What insight did that give you?
DA: What we learnt from the research - and mostly we were talking to 'soft' swing voters, people who had voted for Obama in 2008 but weren't willing to commit, some soft Republicans and some soft Obama supporters - was that while people weren't happy with where things were and they weren't thrilled by all of Obama's decisions, they did believe that this was a massive disaster that he walked into, and they still held Bush responsible for it more than anyone else. They weren't eager for a return to the policies that created it in the first place. They also liked Obama as a person, and had invested in him. They weren't ready to give up on the experiment. So those were all encouraging signs.
We knew the race would be about the economy, the question was: How do we frame it in a way that favours us rather than injured us at a time when unemployment was still high and people were very understandably unhappy?
In a sense the debate over the debt ceiling was a microcosm of the wider debate between the Democrats and the Republicans. We made the argument that you grow the economy by investing in things which strengthen the middle class, and by cutting taxes for the wealthy. The Republicans stubbornly persisted with the message that if we just cut taxes, cut regulation and cut the budget the economy will take off.
You saw a similar situation in the UK - the public wasn't eager to go back to what they perceived as a reprise of the policies that had led to the crisis. So we knew what we had to do, and we just hammered away at it.
But we did a few mischievous things to muck up their contest as well. We watched the Republican debates and one thing that concerned us was that Romney had completely remade himself between 2002, when he ran as a moderate for Massachusetts, and 2008 when he ran as a presidential candidate. He went from a mainstream centre-right Republican to a much more conservative one.
We never believed that was a winning formula for the general election, but we knew that flip-flop was a cause of concern to conservatives in his party. So we went out in the fall of 2011 - myself and David Plouffe - to start raising the questions about it, talking to reporters and reacting to debates saying he had no core and was running away from his record. We wanted to ignite that discussion within the Republican party, and we did. They started picking up on it and that lengthened the primary process. That was tremendously damaging because, firstly there was no chance for him to pivot to a more moderate position, second because they had to spent a lot of money to win the primaries, and thirdly because it extended the process into April, so he couldn't turn his attention to us until after that. It was a successful stratagem.
DM: So you obviously framed Romney very well and very early, and he did have his flaws as a candidate. But to what extent was Romney part of a much greater malaise inside the Republican party?
DA: We did make a key strategic decision to define Romney early before he could define himself, and we looked at the 2004 Bush/Kerry race, because Bush didn't start off in much better shape than we were, and he went on to relentlessly shape the race and define Kerry, putting himself in a position to win. We knew that Romney's 30,000-feet description of himself as a 'successful businessman' was going to be appealing to a lot of people who were worried about the economy, so it was really important that we defined what kind of businessman he was - we all knew that back in '94 he had lost his Senate race to another candidate in part because of concerns over practices of his firm. So we made a decision to move money that we had originally budgeted for September, October and November into May, June, July and August.
My personal view is that ads after the party conventions are close to worthless, because the coverage is so intense people tend to form their opinions based on the debates. It defied conventional wisdom but we were willing to risk being lighter in October and heavier in July. It turned out to be a good decision and we were actually able to raise a lot of money in the fall anyway, so we didn't sacrifice that much. But with that strategy we did manage to define him early on.
But actually Romney's big problem was that he was never really the choice of the Republican party. He, through sheer force of will and resources, overpowered a fairly weak Republican field. But he never had the hearts and minds of core Republicans, and that was something he always seemed to be looking at in the rear-view mirror. His choice of Paul Ryan thrilled his base and exacerbated his problems; Ryan was the architect of a budget that approximated the one Romney talked about in general terms, and it would have visited havoc on a lot of Americans, while benefitting the wealthy. So it became a centre piece for us in our campaign.
If you look at the choice of Ryan, which I think was a mistake, if you look at the Republican convention at which Romney was almost an apparition as the right-wing had a rally around him, he only really became an effective candidate in October. He had been laid low by the tape which had been released in which he said 47 per cent of Americans were essentially moochers. And that was terribly damaging. He came back very smartly from that - it's a matter of record that the first debate was a bit of a disaster for us and a great boon to him and he started to saw down the rough edges of his message. By then I think he felt comfortable that the conservatives were invested in him, and he had a little more running room. But it was too late. He was still tied to this very suspect economic theory, and he had been defined as a loyalist himself. In some ways he had come to symbolise much of what people hated about the economy - the high-flying deals which made a lot of money for the financial engineers but probably cost people their jobs, outsourcing, offshoring and tax evasion. So he in a sense became over the course of the summer a symbol of some of the practices that middle-class Americans believed, I think rightly, had conspired against them.
DM: Your campaign questions a lot of assumptions held by Washington about how you win an election. But looking to the final stages of the campaign, one thing I was always struck by was your certainty that everything was going to be OK. Where did this conviction come from?
DA: The greatest lesson anyone ever taught me about national politics was in 1987, Gary Hart, who was then running for president, said to me, 'Just remember, Washington is always the last to get the news'. The thing about conventional wisdom is that you can almost always count on it being wrong. We live in a dynamic environment in which no two elections are the same. I mentioned the Bush campaign, and you can draw some comparisons from that, but they're all different. The fact that Barack Obama became president in the depths of this economic crisis was not lost on people. The unstinting attempt by the Romney campaign and the Republicans to pin the entire crisis on him just wasn't credible.
But I wasn't confident in the abstract, I was confident based on cold hard data of polling by three different entities: we had state-wide polls by very good pollsters; we had a battleground state poll that Joel Benenson did almost every night, five nights a week; and we had our analytic unit making 10,000 calls a night. Independently they all came to the same conclusion, which was that, for much of the end of the race, we were ahead 50:46 in the battleground states. That bounced around a little - we got an inflated lead when the 47 per cent tape came out in mid-September, but then took care of that with one bad debate. But never did I feel like we were in jeopardy of losing.
What was somewhat aggravating was that you had this array of public polls vastly conflicting. The media has a vested interest in a close race, and many of them had hypothesised that Obama couldn't win, so they were looking for any sign to put the life into a lifeless race. So we did have to spend a lot of time beating back the 'hair on fire' people. I carried a hose with me.
DM: The electoral coalition you created with the president has been compared to Nixon's southern strategy in its potential for dominance. Do you see that coalition carrying through for the next 20 years or are you more circumspect about, for example, the extent to which Hispanics are locked into the Democratic party?
DA: I'm very wary of making sweeping judgments. When Bush got elected, Karl Rove talked about a dominant Republican majority for years to come and by 2006 they lost the congress and by 2008 they'd lost the presidency. But there's no doubt that Hispanic voters are going to be become more and not less important in our party. And there's no doubt that you can't win if you continue to run large gender gaps.
The emerging electorate is definitely more progressive on social issues, and the Republican economic theory is not particularly well written. But the big problem they have is that they have a raging civil war within their own party, between centre-right republicans who want to win national elections and Tea Party and social conservatives who would be content to consign the Republican party to minority status for a long time to come. But looking at the demographic trends is telling. The most popular name for a new-borns in Texas is Jos?. There are millions of unregistered Hispanic voters there who will soon be registered. Within one or two cycles Texas, the largest star in the Republican firmament, will be a swing state.
I think the future is promising, but it's not guaranteed. If the Republicans can resolve their fight - and I don't know that they can because the strongest elements of their coalition are the white evangelicals - but if they can, they can be competitive. But I recently saw the Hispanic Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, on television. Earlier that day he had been one of the 20 to vote against the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate. It is hard for me to see how someone gets elected as the president of the United States making those votes, but also hard for me to see how someone wins the Republican nomination without making those votes.
I think they have a lot of problems, but the Democratic party also haven't been impervious to mistakes. I feel good about the future but I don't take it for granted.
DM: What do you think progressive parties in Europe can learn from the president's re-election?
DA: I don't hold myself out as an expert on the continent and the intricacies of each country's policies but I think that, as technology advances in developed, industrialised nations, there is a growing pressure on the middle class, and that animates our politics, and it animates UK politics. The candidate who can plausibly speak to that concern and that anxiety has the best chance to succeed.
Striking the balance between the long-term need for austerity and the short-term stimulus has been key. People want those investments that are going to be pro the economy and are going to improve their chances in getting a liveable wage that supports a middle-class lifestyle. I suspect that the UK has in various degrees some of the same tensions because these are the tensions being driven by long-term economic trends. People are concerned about their own wellbeing and even more concerned about their children. In a number of European nations the tension is between the old and the young. People worry about their children, and whether they'll have to leave to find work. I think this is the central struggle of our time, which is to reconcile the rapid changes in our economies that are driven by advances in technology and other factors conspiring against the middle class. The candidate who can understand that and harnesses it has the best chance to win.
Obviously, as with us, you have to deal with scepticism about status-quo structures, so success also entails adapting to that. What the president is trying to do is take the fundamental values that say you want a growing, striving middle class whose hard work is rewarded, and who see a future for their children, and marry those fundamental values with innovative ways to achieve them. Those ways may be less reliant on government structures, but mean more of a move to where the government acts as a catalyst rather than the principal provider. I think you have to have a 21st century scheme for how you achieve time-honoured values and goals.
This conversation appears in the latest issue of Juncture, IPPR's journal for rethinking the centre-left.