In a probing conversation at the University of Chicago, David Axelrod reflected on the twists and turns of the 2012 presidential campaign and his own career in politics, which began when he attended a rally for John F. Kennedy at just 5 years old.
“I was hooked,” Axelrod said of his first exposure to a political campaign. “I didn’t understand what he was saying—I wasn’t that precocious. But I knew it seemed really important and really exciting.”
Axelrod, AB’76, told the audience at the Nov. 26 event that he hopes to foster that same passion for public service in University of Chicago students through the University’s new Institute of Politics. Axelrod, who was senior strategist for President Obama’s reelection campaign, will formally join the non-partisan Institute as its inaugural director in January 2013.
During the 90-minute conversation, Axelrod discussed key strategic decisions and events that shaped the 2012 campaign as well as forces that will shape political contests in the future. He also discussed plans for the new Institute, which will organize visiting fellowships for political and policy practitioners, paid political internships for students, and an ongoing speaker series.
“In this auditorium and on this campus, there are people who are uniquely equipped to make a difference,” Axelrod told the Institute’s deputy director for programming, Steve Edwards, who moderated the discussion and Q&A session that followed. Axelrod said he hopes the Institute will serve students who, like him, want to apply their education to the world around them.
He also looked back on surprising moments of the 2012 campaign, including GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s choice of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Axelrod said he had expected Romney to choose either Ohio senator Rob Portman or former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty for their experience and centrist views.
One of his challenging campaign moments was defending President Obama’s sub-par performance in the first presidential debate. Axelrod said that although he felt the debate’s negative effects would be limited, he didn’t relish the prospect of addressing reporters afterward. He admitted thinking, “Can’t someone else do this?”
The Obama campaign’s move to begin airing ads early in the summer was a key strategic decision, Axelrod said. Paradoxically, the ads may have made more impact because voters absorbed them before they had fully tuned into the fall election, he said. “I can’t think of a presidential race that was won on the basis of a television ad that aired after Labor Day,” Axelrod said.
Through the campaign’s highs and lows, Axelrod said he was guided by an approach to politics “rooted in a belief that it is more than just a game of tactics and strategies, parries and thrusts,” he said. “It means something.”
He acknowledged that American politics can be “frustrating and dispiriting” at times. But he encouraged students in the audience to get involved in public life. “We need talented, well-motivated young people,” he said. “The only way to truly change it is to get in the arena and make a difference.”