Spirited election panel previews new Institute of Politics

On an afternoon when the University of Chicago announced the creation of the new Institute of Politics, a panel of prominent political figures also marked the occasion with informed analysis, humor, and spirited disagreements over the 2012 presidential election.

The Jan. 19 panel, “2012: The Path to the Presidency,” gave a glimpse of what incoming institute director David Axelrod, AB’76, plans to be a regular part of the new initiative when it begins operation in 2013. The institute will focus on non-curricular avenues for students to pursue interests in politics and policymaking. The extracurricular activities will include high-profile speakers, visiting fellows, and expanded internship opportunities.

“The Institute of Politics will offer an intellectual destination for students, scholars, and leaders who will bring with them a broad spectrum of political beliefs and experiences,” President Robert J. Zimmer said at the news conference that opened the event at International House.

In the panel discussion that followed the news announcement, a broad range of political beliefs was on display as the panelists gave their views on the ongoing Republican primary contests and rated the field’s chances against incumbent President Barack Obama. The powerhouse panel featured New York Times columnist David Brooks, AB’83; Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s “This Week” and “Good Morning America,” moderated the discussion.

The spirited give-and-take included the upcoming State of the Union address, with Maddow urging President Obama to offer small-scale, specific programs for ordinary Americans. Emanuel and Castellanos argued that Obama should play to his strengths as an inspirational leader.

Candidates “want credit for what they’ve done [in the past],” Emanuel said. “Don’t do it. Get everybody’s eyes focused on the future.”

A bemused Castellanos responded, “I find myself here, one, advising President Obama, and, two, agreeing with the mayor of Chicago.”

‘An emotional homecoming’

The event began with a focus on the future, as Axelrod and University leaders described their aspirations for the institute to create new career opportunities for students and to further enliven intellectual exchanges about politics.

Axelrod, a College alumnus and top strategist for President Obama, described the announcement as “an emotional homecoming.”

Axelrod said he hoped to encourage students’ passion for public service, and urged them to take an active part in their government. “Don’t curse the outcome. Change the outcome,” he said.

The Institute of Politics will be a resource for the entire University but will have especially close ties with the College and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. Colm O'Muircheartaigh, dean of Chicago Harris, said the announcement would “energize the whole the University.”

Dean of the College John Boyer called the Institute of Politics “both a lever and a fulcrum for the future,” adding that “[Axelrod’s] homecoming … is an extraordinary win for the home team.”

Student government vice-president Meher Kairon said the Institute of Politics will offer “essential opportunities” for students, and added that it is an ideal fit for UChicago. “This is a place that has always encouraged an uncommon approach to big problems,” she said.

“It is a big election”

Following the announcement, Axelrod introduced the panel, which he described as “a preview of attractions to come” at the new Institute of Politics. The panelists were in agreement about the enormous stakes of the 2012 election, which comes in the midst of what Emanuel called “an inflection point” for the country.

“It is a big time, it is a big election, it is about big things,” Castellanos agreed.

Both Obama and the GOP presidential field came in for criticism from the panel. Maddow wryly remarked that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would win the nomination only because he was the “the tallest midget … His skills really look great because they’re measured against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.” But Brooks said some of his hopes for Obama have not been realized, and he criticized what he described as the president’s increasingly populist tone.

“People do not want to talk about inequality, they want to talk about opportunity,” Brooks said.

Castellanos, who managed Romney’s 2008 presidential bid, acknowledged weaknesses in the current campaign, particularly Romney’s discomfort in discussing his finances.

Still, he felt Romney would fare better in the general election than he has in the primaries. “He’s hard to love, but he’s hard to hate,” Castellanos pointed out.

Brooks, too, felt Romney’s moderate views would serve him well in the general election, but noted the “invisible cold wind” between Romney and voters.

Looking for fresh ideas

Despite the bruising primary race, Castellanos wasn’t concerned about the future of the GOP. He was especially hopeful that the party’s young Hispanic leaders, like Marco Rubio, would help Romney win the general election. “We seem to be doing well for a party that’s doing so poorly,” he said.

Maddow, too, acknowledged the GOP’s success. “The conservatives have won the framing and messaging battle,” Maddow said. “We have given in to the idea that there is nothing good to get out of government.”

There was no consensus, however, on how President Obama could most effectively fight back. Brooks wanted to see bold new steps that would stave off fears of national decline.  

“If it’s about national decline, you have to have big policies,” Brooks said. “Somehow getting at the mixture of social anxiety and economic anxiety, and giving an opportunity talk, is a lot better than basing your entire policy on taxing the top one percent.”

Maddow felt the nation was “inspiration-ed out,” and pushed for more functional, pragmatic ideas from the president. “We’ve heard ‘let’s bring the country together.’ We’ve heard ‘It’s not red states and blue states, it’s the United States.’ Show it,” she said.

Despite the occasional criticisms of the president, his campaign strategist didn’t seem to mind. Axelrod stayed for more than an hour at the reception that followed the event, talking with a crowd of energized students and other members of the university community.

“This was the panel of my dreams, and you can see why,” Axelrod said.



2012: Path to the Presidency Panel Discussion

Full video of the Jan. 19 announcement on the creation of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

2012: Path to the Presidency Panel Discussion

Full video of the Jan. 19 election panel, "2012: The Path to the Presidency."



George Stephanopoulos, who co-anchors “Good Morning America” and hosts the Sunday political program “This Week,” was invited by political strategist and UChicago College alumnus David Axelrod to moderate a panel at the University of Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 19. The panel discussion, titled "2012: The Path to the Presidency," followed an announcement about the University's new Institute of Politics, for which Axelrod will serve as inaugural director.

Photo by Jason Smith

David Axelrod welcomes third-year Meher Kairon, vice president for student government, to the event at International House. Axelrod joined President Robert J. Zimmer, Dean of the College John Boyer, and Dean of Chicago Harris Colm O’Muircheartaigh in announcing the new UChicago Institute of Politics. The discussion that followed included panelists David Brooks, AB’83, a columnist and political analyst for The New York Times; Alex Castellanos (center, above), a Republican media consultant; Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and previous Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama; and Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC's political program “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

Photo by Jason Smith

President of the University of Chicago Robert J. Zimmer (right) welcomes Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the University, where Emanuel spoke on a panel about the 2012 presidential campaign and upcoming election.

Photo by Jason Smith

President Zimmer (center) introduces Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) to Dean of the College and historian John Boyer.

Photo by Jason Smith

College alumnus David Axelrod speaks at the announcement of the new Institute of Politics. From left, the announcement speakers were: President Robert J. Zimmer, Dean of the College John Boyer, incoming institute director David Axelrod, third-year Meher Kairon, and Dean of Chicago Harris Colm O'Muircheartaigh.

Photo by Jason Smith

David Axelrod describes his excitement at returning to the University of Chicago to direct the new Institute of Politics, which will begin operation in early 2013.

Photo by Jason Smith

Colm O’Muircheartaigh, dean of the Harris School, notes the importance of the new institute for students of Chicago Harris. The institute will encourage and support College and Chicago Harris students who wish to find careers in the public service and non-profit sectors. It also will benefit existing programs across the University, including those connected to policy, law, business, and related fields.

Photo by Jason Smith

Meher Kairon, vice president of student affairs for UChicago's student government and a third-year studying political science, comments on how the new Institute of Politics is a good fit for the University, which always looks for uncommon ways to solve big problems.

Photo by Jason Smith

ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos, who previously served in the Clinton Administration as communications director and senior adviser for policy and strategy, kicks off the discussion at International House on Thursday, Jan. 19.

Photo by Jason Smith

Rachel Maddow, a former Rhodes Scholar and anchor of her own political program on MSNBC, is introduced to the audience.

Photo by Jason Smith

The University's International House Assembly Hall is filled to capacity on Thursday, Jan. 19 for the panel discussion, "2012: The Path to the Presidency."

Photo by Jason Smith

Panel moderator George Stephanopoulos (left) engages the panelists, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Photo by Jason Smith

David Brooks offers analysis of the Republican primary race.

Photo by Jason Smith

Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos discusses Republican primary candidate Mitt Romney's odds for winning the GOP presidential candidacy.

Photo by Jason Smith

International House was filled to capacity Thursday, Jan. 19 for the Institute of Politics announcement and the panel discussion "2012: The Path to the Presidency." The panelists' opinions kept the audience engaged for the hour-long conversation.

Photo by Jason Smith

Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," said Mitt Romney will probably come out of the Republican primary as the front runner, based on his competition.

Photo by Jason Smith

Moderator George Stephanopoulos poses a question for the panelists.

Photo by Jason Smith

The spirited discussion at I-House about the presidential campaign and election of 2012 was not without its moments of humor.

Photo by Jason Smith

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said President Obama, for whom Emanuel served as White House Chief of Staff, should emphasize a future of opportunity for Americans in his campaign and accentuate his role as an inspirational leader.

Photo by Jason Smith

Local and national media outlets, including WLS, WMAQ, WBEZ and C-SPAN captured the events at I-House.

Photo by Jason Smith

An audience member asks the panelists a question at the Thursday, Jan. 19 "2012: The Path to the Presidency" talk.

Photo by Jason Smith

Members of the media interview David Axelrod about the new role he will play as director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics. Axelrod plans to continue to bring high-profile speakers to the table for future discussions on politics, benefiting students interested in public service careers.

Photo by Jason Smith

A reception followed the panel discussion, where students had a chance to discuss what they heard from the political analysts and Chicago's mayor.  


Photo by Jason Smith

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