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David Axelrod, Lefty Lumberjack

Obama's main man will do whatever it takes to fell Republicans and conservatives. Where does his ruthlessness and drive come from?

By From the March 2012 issue

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Getting Barack Obama elected president would be "something you could really be proud of for the rest of your life," said David Axelrod in January 2007, a month before the young Illinois senator proclaimed his candidacy. "It would really change politics in a positive way."

Axelrod, already an established political consultant, had in front of him a potential huge star, a game changer—a political advent. He saw in Obama a boy wonder, at once compelling, winsome, engaging, historic, spiritual, a hope-filled, hope-emanating "agent of change." The consultant had a candidate who could sail to the stars.

Axelrod scheduled the ascension for a Saturday in February, year of our Lord, 2007. The site was Springfield, Illinois, where another timeless figure, Abraham Lincoln, once held forth. The Anointed One bestrode the frozen ground before a mesmerized crowd of 15,000 liberal faithful. There, Barack Obama proceeded to invoke Lincoln a half dozen times in a speech guided by the hand of Axelrod, whose personal bookshelf is packed with Lincoln biographies. The assembled ached and awed as Obama offered them not mere leadership but transcendence, an overcoming of the "smallness of our politics," of the "challenges" of the "generation," and of the "failure of leadership" in America and on the planet.

Once the Obama '08 campaign was in full force, David Axelrod did not relent, ramping up the appeal, packaging and selling and heralding this Illinois marvel of singular historical magnificence: "I think he's unique, and he offers something very special and important in these times," said "the Ax" of Barack. "He can heal this country and move it forward in a way that perhaps no one else can."

Obama could calm the waters, commanding them to be still. Americans need only rise up, grab his hand, walk, and be healed; they need only assent and accept the gift. Hope and change had come to rescue them. Here was a form of change unlike anything this nation had ever seen, a politics of meaning to make Hillary Clinton blush—and lose.

That was the message. Obama was the message. But there was a messenger behind the message.

All of it, right down to the very words "hope and change," was David Axelrod's doing. Axelrod was no mere spinster or political consultant. He was the architect and author of the Obama message. The Los Angeles Times, in one of many media puff-pieces on Axelrod, correctly called him the "keeper" of the sacred message in an image-based campaign in which "message is everything." The New York Times dubbed him "Obama's Narrator."

He is imager of the image and narrator of the narrative. No single person is more responsible for making Barack Obama president. Come November 2008, it was nothing short of a stunning change for America, a genuinely historical feat the man known as Ax hopes to repeat in November 2012.

And it helps that the two—story-maker and story, composer and theme—think alike. "You know, he and I share a basic worldview," Obama told the New York Times. "I trust his basic take on what the country should be and where we need to move toward—not just on specific policy but how politics should be able to draw on our best and not our worst."

Axelrod agreed unhesitatingly, saying of Obama: "He's not just a client. He's a very good friend of mine. We share a worldview."

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.