Skip to main content

President Barack Obama talks with David Axelrod in the Oval Office in 2009.Pete Souza

It has been one of the mysteries of Barack Obama's presidency: How has the politician who captivated national and international audiences during his meteoric rise to power, delivering stunning orations that drew on his personal story and his vision for his country, had so much trouble generating excitement about his agenda in office?

David Axelrod, who served as the top strategist on Mr. Obama's two presidential campaigns and as a senior adviser during his first term in the White House, is well acquainted with that struggle. His new book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, is a personal memoir, tracking how he went from covering the elbows-out world of Chicago politics as a journalist, to becoming one of the nation's leading campaign strategists and messaging gurus. It also arguably lays out the strongest case to date for Mr. Obama's legacy, presenting him as a leader who took political risks to bring his country back from the brink of economic disaster, address some of its more glaring social ills, and help restore its international reputation.

Over the phone from New York this week, Mr. Axelrod expanded on his view of why Mr. Obama has been unable to make that case himself, leading to criticism that he has been ineffectual and his accomplishments middling.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Axelrod lays a good chunk of blame for Mr. Obama's inability to simultaneously speak to a cross-partisan audience and inspire his fellow liberals, the way he did in his first campaign, on what he plainly considers a toxic culture in his nation's capital – one caused both by the "implacable opposition" of Republicans (which the President initially underestimated) and a parochial press corps disinclined to see the big picture. In the interview, he seemed frustrated that what he considers Mr. Obama's most substantive achievements – including saving the auto industry, implementing new financial regulations, bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding gay rights, reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba, and reforming health care – have been given short shrift.

But the backroom guru also concedes there are some ways in which the President and his team did not make the most of his communication abilities – hard-learned lessons that future leaders would do well to note.

One of those is the danger of drawing too sharp a distinction between campaigning and governing, the responsibility for which Mr. Axelrod places with Mr. Obama himself. Thinking that the skill set he brought to the former wasn't needed between elections, Mr. Axelrod said, helps to explain why, at critical times, Mr. Obama can seem bloodless.

"One of the ongoing conversations I had with him is that he took too much to heart this old adage of [former New York governor] Mario Cuomo's, that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose," he recalled. "The fact is, you always need a little bit of poetry; you always need to continue to tell the story of where you're going and why. And sometimes the President, because he feels there's a higher dividing line between campaigning and governing, can be more prosaic and mind-numbingly detailed in his answers and his communications on issues than made me comfortable."

Mr. Axelrod also says that Mr. Obama's administration did him a disservice early in his presidency by squandering his ability to command the attention of Americans, even when he spoke compellingly. Trying to calm the nation's fears about the economic crisis he inherited, then-chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel encouraged his boss to constantly be in front of the cameras, and in the process subjected him to overexposure.

"It was partly because there was this sense that we had a national emergency and people needed to see the President out there every day responding to it," Mr. Axelrod explained. "But the result [was] that we turned him into kind of an announcer for the government rather than a narrator of where we, as a country, were going. I think we wore him down as a communicator and we wore out his effectiveness, to some degree, by overusing him. I kind of sensed that then, and that was part of the struggle that Rahm and I had, but I'm more certain of it now."

Part of Mr. Obama's ubiquity in those early days may have had something to do with another, overriding communications challenge – one much further from his control, and as likely to bedevil his successors: Courtesy of the fragmentization and customization of media, the "bully pulpit" no longer exists for any president the way it once did.

"Ronald Reagan, when he addressed the nation, 70 million people would watch," Mr. Axelrod said. "We were all essentially watching a few networks. Now, there are infinite choices. And you almost, around every issue, have to assemble your pulpit piece by piece, going out and reaching for those voters or constituencies who are motivated by particular issues."

That explains why Mr. Obama has been turning up on "all kinds of media vehicles where you wouldn't [traditionally] find a President," he added, citing an appearance on Between Two Ferns – a show with comedian Zach Galifianakis as host on the website Funny or Die – as an example. "Understanding where the people are that you need to reach, and then the tactics required to reach them, is going to be a mission for every leader here and elsewhere."

Mr. Obama's myriad difficulties in telling a positive story about his presidency undoubtedly contributed to his Democrats' drubbing in the last mid-term elections, and Mr. Axelrod knows there have been other consequences as well. From his current perch as director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, where he said his "mission is to try and encourage young people to get into the arena in some form or fashion," he sees how disappointment with what was supposed to be a transformational presidency can sap enthusiasm for engaging with the system.

Wanting to combat that cynicism was an incentive for writing his book. "I wanted to report what I saw," he said, "and what I saw was a guy make some very tough and I think courageous decisions to pull the country out of multiple crises and lay a foundation for the future."

Time is running out for Mr. Obama to convince his many detractors of that before he leaves the White House, but Mr. Axelrod hopes the passing of time will bring a different perspective.

"The Washington political media community tends to judge presidents on short-term political style points," he said. "But that's not how history judges them."

The 2016 ticket

There was a question in my interview with David Axelrod that led him to pause: Would a 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush be a setback, after Barack Obama seemed to prove that a relative outsider can make it to the White House?

His first answer was that they simply may prove to be the strongest contenders from their parties. But then he added that it may also represent a natural course correction.

"I don't think people ever seek the replica of what they have, even when the president is very, very popular," he said. "I think they seek the remedy to what they perceive as the deficiencies of that president."

In 2008, Mr. Axelrod believes, voters were looking for someone who would "challenge the system in Washington" more than George W. Bush had (as well as being more "deliberative" and able to see nuance). But for all the other successes he attributes to Mr. Obama, he is under no illusions about the perceived level of dysfunction in his nation's polarized capital. So now, being seen as a relative insider could be an advantage.

"In that sense, the Bush and Clinton candidacies make a little more sense, because they may be familiar names, but they'll also be familiar with how things work," he said. "That may suggest to people, these are folks who can navigate the system – perhaps they can navigate it better than Obama did."