David Axelrod is Flailing About Like a Giant Flailing Thing
David Axelrod, senior advisor to President BHO, is a message monomaniac, and that’s why his dreadful performance on (American) ABC’s This Week on Sunday is so baffling.
Apart from the candidate himself, the success of the Obama campaign in 2008 is most often credited to über-organiser David Plouffe, whose remarkable grassroots outreach and fundraising strategies have rightfully become legend (this is the latest book on the subject). But the other David — Axelrod’s — role as guardian of the campaign narrative; his superhuman discipline in the face of provocation from supporters as well as opponents; and, most of all,. his unwavering prosecution of the message, was just as critical to Obama’s victory. Alexrod is the highest-ranked spin-doctor in the world, but he has none of the too-polished smarminess of Alistair Campbell or too-clever-by-half arrogance of Karl Rove. He also shares little of their fame (or infamy) and none of their interest in it. While his grooming and demeanour befit the hard-bitten Chicago political reporter he once was, his mind is whip-smart and his media performances are usually case-study excellent. Until Sunday’s outing on This Week, a one-on-one studio interview with Jake Tapper.
The first question was as follows:
TAPPER: So the president’s popularity among independents is sinking. It’s a real problem for him politically. One year ago, he was at 56 percent approval with independents. Now it’s 38 percent. Why do you think independents are turning away from the president?
This is a tough question, sure. But it was utterly predictable. Tapper is citing a poll that was widely reported in the 24 hours leading up to the interview. A junior communications adviser in the West Wing could have guessed that this question — or something very like it — would come up in the interview. And it is an opportunity to road-test the White House message for these very voters. Alexrod’s answer?
AXELROD: Well, first of all, there are all kinds of numbers out there, so this is one set of numbers. There are other sets of numbers.
But, look, I think I’ve said this to you before. When I — when I sat down with the president and his economic advisers, a group of us in the middle of 2008, and they told us what was about to ensure and — about the recession that we were well into at that point, I said to him, you know, we’re going to — your numbers are going to suffer here, and we’re going to have a difficult election, because these are going to be difficult times for the country.
His opening gambit is “See how clever I am: I predicted that the President’s popularity would sink, and I even told him.” This is self-serving bullshit, even if it’s true. Then he proceeds:
Our job is not, though, to worry about that, Jake. Our job is to worry about how we get people back to work, how we move this country forward, and if — if we do our job, the rest will take care of itself.
So he disowns the first part of his answer (“not to worry”) — and proceeds to dismiss the problem with Independents by saying that it will “take care of itself” as long as the unemployment problem is fixed. This is passive and uninspiring. He then tries to frame the politics more usefully:
And, remember, elections — the presidential election is an eternity away. Elections are about choices, though. They’re not referendums. And on the other side of the ballot in November will be a party that has an economic theory, and it was tested, and it led to catastrophe.
We lost 3 million jobs in the last six months of 2008. The financial market almost collapsed. They turned a $237 billion surplus that Bill Clinton left into a $1.3 trillion deficit. And they’re running on the same policies.
Better — but too late. It just sounds like desperate flailing, because it is. Sunday morning interview programs are ready-made for political pros like Axelrod to deliver a coherent message, but it is difficult to glean from this answer — or from the whole interview — what the White House wants to say.
This is a worrying sign for the Obama camp, but no cause for panic. During the campaign and since, they have had periods of message anemia before. What has typically happened is Obama himself steps up to deliver once of his trademark come-from-behind speeches (Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, race speech, post-Scott Brown healthcare address) and the course corrects. John Dickerson of Slate posits that this may no longer be possible because Obama has lost his “mojo”. Dickerson is smart, but he is too easily seduced by poll numbers and bogus insider trends. Obama has plenty more in the tank. Axelrod, judging by Sunday’s outing, could do with a refill.