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The disillusionment of David Axelrod


Noam Scheiber's profile of the disillusioned David Axelrod is worth reading. Axelrod, who's been hamhanded at best in his role as Special Envoy to the Professional Left, appears to share their critique of the administration almost entirely. He's presented as being uncomfortable with the concessions of governing, the power of the special interests, the paralysis of the Congress, the wages of pragmatism. He sounds, well, like a liberal.

I can't say whether Scheiber gets Axelrod right, but the article rings true: I've found Axelrod a puzzling spokesperson because he seems defensive over the administration's compromises rather than confident in their successes. Sharing in the critique he's rebutting would explain that ambivalence. “In terms of the short-term mentality, the unwillingness to take risks, the way every day is scored like the Super Bowl—all those things he believed, I think, have been confirmed in the extreme,” David Plouffe tells Scheiber. “But it’s not like he was caught by surprise. He understood that. It’s what he expected.”

So why didn't he do more to change it?

A governance agenda is not totally inimical to a reform agenda. It's true that it's difficult to cut deals with the pharmaceutical companies and then decry the influence of special interests. But in theory, it's hard to cut deals with insurers and then attack them from the stump -- and the administration is perfectly at home doing that.

The reality is that the Obama world critique of Washington has always been fuzzy. Is the problem money? Partisanship? The news cycle? Short-term thinking? And even if it's all those things, what's to be done about it?

This isn't an ancient riddle. Dealing with money requires pushing for campaign-finance reform, but the administration responded to the outrage of Citizens United with the band-aid of the DISCLOSE Act rather than the root-and-branch reform of the Fair Elections Now legislation. Partisanship is mainly a problem because of the filibuster, and though Axelrod and the President have lamented the tactic's prevalence, they haven't supported efforts to do away with it. They haven't even made it part of their communications strategy. Remember how often the Bush administration talked about up-or-down votes? As for the news cycle, the administration's critique of 24-hour news has always been that it doesn't really matter. And they're right. And if they want more long-term thinking, they should make more long-term proposals. Instead they've abandoned big stimulus projects and contented themselves with small-ball policies that they could pass rather than big-think ideas that could inspire.

Axelrod and the Obama administration may not like Washington. But the reality is, they haven't done all that much to change it. It's of course true that they've also been busy, and there's only time for so much in a term. But here, in the days before the election, we're talking about the Bush tax cuts and offshoring bills. There was room for a push on these issues, if only a rhetorical one. There was room for some new thinking on taxes. There was room for the Fair Elections Now Act. One of Axelrod's common complaints is that the president's supporters too often give up when faced with the grueling slog of change. But at times, so too does the White House.

Photo credit: White House.

By Ezra Klein  | September 28, 2010; 9:02 AM ET
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Excellent post, Ezra.

Posted by: scarlota | September 28, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

The White House has given up? That implies that they actually began something and abandoned it, rather than what they actually did, which is convince themselves that nothing ambitious was even worth attempting.

Posted by: redscott1904 | September 28, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Axelrod may have had a problem dating from his first day at the White House. This involved The Peter Principle, e.g., people promoted one step or more above their actual level of competence.
Axelrod and other key members from the presidential campaign accepted White House positions. Though they obviously excelled at campaign work, what did any of them know about matters all of which involved this obviously huge task called Governing?

Posted by: alicesprings | September 28, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I always sort of viewed Axelrod to be one of the "true believers" of the Obama message-- the idea that everyone would get along and work together under Obama's "no drama leadership." And maybe my judgment about him was wrong, or maybe Axelrod is reimagining himself for the purposes of this TNR profile. People who want to "change politics" too often feel themselves to be "too good for politics." If that's true, then you shouldn't be there. It sounds like he's disillusioned with the way Washington works and that Obama's mere presence didn't change all of that. I could have told him that's how it was going to be.

Posted by: constans | September 28, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Excellent post, excellent comments. Re excelling at campaign work, why hasn't Obama kept the message going, despite the pragmatic constraints? He can say anything he wants in his speeches (God knows his predecessor did) and he could have prevented a lot of discouragement. Instead of what worked magic during the election, we're getting the White House busy signal.

Posted by: CrowIII | September 28, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Sometime back Daniel Drezner talked about 'rites of passage' for American WH Administration - first broken promise, first resignation, first scandal, first military setback and so on.

I would add one more to that last - 'pulling political advisers' on the altar of public scrutiny. Talking about David Axelrod seems one of that.

Again, let us go over the basics - American people vote for a candidate and none of phalanx of'chamachas' (this is Indian Hindi word for Political Friday Men of a leader) are elected. President is expected to make his own decisions and execute those.

Bob Woodward is portraying this President as some one who got overawed by Pentagon. Bob may be right as far as journalism goes, but American People wonder - if this is the President who cannot get his cabal of professional worriers, how is he the Commander-in-Chief?

The Constitutional Lawyer Professor finds his own way to deal with his Samurai's - 6 page negotiated treaty. Hey, it does not matter as long as the fat lady sings - whatever works for Obama.

So we have a President who writes such treaties personally for his staff and not only crosses t's and dots i's on his speeches but architects his own speeches & communication strategy and you want us to believe one Mr. David Axelron matters?

Get over it Ezra. Let this President earn his political spurs and let us not find any scapegoats.

Posted by: umesh409 | September 28, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Axelrod et al created this cult-of-personality to get into power on empty slogans- since they hadn't sold the policy behind change- it is difficult to implement it- welcome to the real world David. I will repeat this from Thom Hartmann over and over- we need to be the parade looking for a leader, not the leader rounding up a parade-

We need a narrative- this is what we stand for, this is who we are- not a bunch of over compromised watered down bills. Somehow W pushed through a radical right wing agenda with much smaller/inconsistent majorities in congress for 6 years.

Do what is correct, not what is political.

Maybe we should have nominated the girl????? She had a notebook full or ambitious progressive policies all laid out

Posted by: NYClefty | September 28, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

This story of the disappointed "idealist" is just the latest fairy tale peddled here about why people are leaving. First we were told Orszag left "to get married." Really? He needed the time to plan the menu and select the outfits of the groomsmen? Then the raging desire of Emanuel to be mayor of Chicago? I'll believe that one when I see it. And now this. The more honest portrayal of Axelrod to be found, from time to time, in Politico, notes the mega millions his firm has made off of ad contracts he got from the administration for healthcare reform. Politico raised the question of the ethics of this -- whatever it is, it is not "idealistic" behavior.

Posted by: truck1 | September 28, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Brilliant post (as usual) with a dramatic finale "the grueling slog of change. But at times, so too does the White House."

Dramatic but not accurate. In the post, you weren't advocating a grueling slog of change. You were advocating scheduling votes and not winning them to send a message.

I think the post notes something very important. The Obama team seems very very reluctant to lose votes in the House or to fail to invoke cloture in the Senate. This is very odd.

One issue is the care a feeding of conservadems -- they clearly don't want to put Nelson or Lincoln on the spot. This makes no sense anymore in the case of Lincoln. She won't be around for long.

Another is that they think losing is bad publicity. I don't think this is true if the public is on their side on the issue.

I think one important issue is that it is hard for people who think policy and politics 24/7 to fully grasp how uninterested the public (and also the voting public) is. They seem to think that people will notice a Presidential speech.

Also I think that Emmanuele has a habit of nose counting from serving in the House *and* a habit of arguing for moving right and a very strong inclination to punch hippies.

Axelrod may not have been a good diplomat to the professional left, but just imagine a left blogosphere conference call with Rahm. Oh to be a rogue NSA officer tapping that call.

Posted by: rjw88 | September 28, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

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