David Axelrod Isn’t Going to Shut Up

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David Axelrod recently got a gift in the mail.

It was a box of political pins that captured the unique role that the former top Barack Obama strategist has carved out for himself as a 2024 political commentator — and how allies of the current president see Axelrod at this moment in time.

The message on the pins? “Pricks for Biden.”

For years now, Axelrod has used his many platforms — two podcasts, CNN punditry and regular interviews with political reporters — to offer a lot of unvarnished advice for and criticism of Joe Biden.

In November, he suggested Biden think long and hard about running for reelection. He has been withering about Biden’s skills as a candidate and communicator. He is deeply concerned about the president’s age. And unlike other Democrats in the anti-bedwetting set, Axe has been clear that the party should be freaked out by the polls.

All of this has made Axelrod a bit of an irritant to the president.

Thus the joke pins. My colleague Jonathan Martin reported in the fall that Biden recently used the P word (“prick”) to describe Axelrod.

Mike Murphy, the Republican strategist who co-hosts the “Hacks on Tap” podcast with Axelrod, recently joked that if Biden were to get close to Axelrod, the president may end up convicted of manslaughter. (“I’m too quick for him!” Axelrod responded.)

With the first voting of the year about to begin, we sat down in the lobby at the Hotel Fort Des Moines and discussed his critiques of the Biden operation, the parallels with 2012 when he led strategy for the Obama reelection, and what it’s like to be a critic of your own party when most partisans these days are expected to mouth the party line.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A lot of prominent Democratic strategists basically just sing from the same songbook — “Don’t be a critic.” Why did you think, “No, my role is going to be a little bit different?”

When I came to CNN, I had a conversation with Jeff Zucker and I said, “Listen, I do not want to be in a box arguing with some pimply-faced young Republican strategist about Roe v. Wade. There are plenty of partisans out there who are really good at what they do. But I want to bring the value of 40 years of experience, and if you want that, that’s what I want to do.” And that entails being analytical — even about your friends.

I’m not looking to antagonize people who I like and care about. And let me just say: I honestly believe Joe Biden has done some things that will have historical meaning — the infrastructure bill, some of the health care things he’s done, leading the country through the pandemic and, of course, restoring some sense of dignity to the White House.

I know that people expect 100 percent loyalty, but that’s not my job.

It’s pretty obvious that there are challenges here, and it seemed pretty obvious to me when I suggested in early November that he think hard about what he’s doing. I was 99 percent sure that that would not mean anything, but I thought there was a 1 percent chance that he would actually rethink the thing. I did want to help promote a conversation about this — the urgency of the moment — because it felt like things were moving slower than they should.

The argument on the other side is: This is the one group of people in the Democratic Party who know how to run a winning campaign against Donald Trump. It’s not going to be a mystery how to do it.

So it’s interesting: There is a treasure trove of experience in that White House. But probably some of it should be sitting over at the campaign.

I have nothing but respect for the wisdom and experience of the people there. But I think there is a little bit of a misunderstanding about 2020, at least from my perspective. There was a recognition — it mostly played out at the convention, which I think was the most message-intensive and well-conceived message exercise of the campaign — that the things that were stressed were Biden’s middle-class roots, his faith, his attachment to the military. Things that signified to people in middle America: He’s actually from here, he’s one of us. And I think that, as much as anything, sealed the deal.

I’m not sure that it was just about the “soul of America.” I think it was about the nature of the working class. And I hope they get back to some of those themes. The next few weeks and months are going to be really, really important. And I’ll be looking for: Are some of those really talented people from the White House going to go over.

Some people have said, “Well, aren’t all reelections always run from the White House? What’s the issue there?”

It is a complex venture to run a campaign. Jen O’Malley Dillon, who’s sitting in the White House now as deputy chief of staff, she’s got a sophisticated understanding of campaigns, and I think that she has a lot of influence over the campaign right now. But unless you’re there day to day — and especially if you have a challenging second job that requires a lot of time, including traveling with the president — I think it’s hard to do.

Mike Donilon is someone I’ve worked with. He was on our team in 2008, in the general election. Really a brilliant guy, good instincts. But he’s in the White House right now instead of in the campaign headquarters, informing what they’re doing every day.

In our campaign, David Plouffe, who was my partner —

You guys swapped. 

Yeah. So he went from the outside to the inside, and I went from the inside to the outside. He’s an incomparable political operative. We all had been working together for years. He was a liaison between the White House, the campaign and everybody in Chicago. We were communicating with each other only about the campaign from minute to minute. And I think that campaigns require that.

What would be a setup that would be similar, that you would suggest that they do here? 

Well, I don’t know. First of all, it’s what the president requires, and he may want some of these people closer to him. I don’t know. They’ve got a campaign manager, but —

Is she empowered? 

And even if she is, when you have an experienced player like Jen sitting in the White House …

They’re going to be running things. 

Yeah. But like I said: If she’s going to be running it in some capacity, you can’t do that as sort of a side job.

I’m trying to think of a delicate way to ask this: Biden’s performance issues. How bad do you think he is, as a candidate, right now? And how big a deal is that in an election?

I think Joe Biden has been a far more competent president than his ratings suggest. And this is purely a function of how people see him. These are communications issues. They’re hard to strategize around. I thought he looked very strong in delivering the speech last week at Valley Forge. There are other times when he’s on the run and it’s much less so.

These are things that are hard — his gait and all of that stuff. These are the things where people have said, “Why are you talking about that?” It’s like you think this is a secret? If it were a secret, they wouldn’t have the problems that they have. There’s so much artifice to politics in some ways. And I think that there’s only so much you can do about that. But I do think that, listen: There is a story to be told.

When you look at the things that Biden is doing to sort of lift up the working class and people who are trying to be middle class, when you look at what he’s done on infrastructure, when you look at what he’s done in protecting and expanding rights, you get the picture of someone who has a vision for the future. And it seems to me that there’s a story to be told about that.

You have two old guys running for president. One of them is consumed by his past, and the other has an eye on your future. That’s the choice. To me, that’s a compelling argument for Biden. It transcends whatever concerns people have about his presentation and so on. Look at the work product and explain the work product in context.

I don’t think he’s ever going to win a referendum. He’s not going to win a report card contest — [though] I think he’d like that, and I think he’s someone who likes that affirmation. But he’s never going to get the credit he deserves, at least in real time.

People should at least know what he’s working toward and what his vision for the country is, because Donald Trump is fully consumed by himself and his own problems and retribution. He’s a backward-looking candidate.

Bill Clinton once said elections are always about the future. I actually think, improbably, the oldest president can grab the future here if he talks about the project he’s working on. And I don’t think it’s all about democracy — though that is a part of it. Protecting and expanding the power of our democracy is a future-oriented project, but it’s not the sum total of it. It’s: What kind of lives are our kids and grandkids going to live in the future?

He seems so interested in convincing everyone that they’re wrong about the economy, that they didn’t quite pay enough attention to the numbers. And I think I’ve heard you say that even in the Obama administration, that was kind of a Biden thing.

Yes, I have said that, but the lesson that we learned through hard experience was: You don’t always get the credit you deserve in real time. And you can’t jawbone people into feeling what they don’t feel.

You can talk about the project you’re working on, the vision that you’re working toward, and you can include the things that you’ve done. It’s not just Biden, but his team has a vision. And I’m not sure that’s well understood now.

Could you identify it? Right now, to the extent that there’s actually a proactive message, the balance seems to be about 10 to 20 percent that, and then the rest is a warning about Trump returning to power.

Listen: Let me make clear that this can’t be a referendum. Part of that message has to be the contrast between a flawed former president who is consumed by the past, and a president who has an eye on the future. To me, that’s the contrast you have to draw.

If you don’t have this contrast, then it just becomes a battle of risk assessment — and I don’t think you want to get into that battle.

He needs a strong and repetitive narrative. I’m moved by the “soul of America” argument, but I also am mindful of the fact that Americans have challenges in their day to day lives, and they’re probably not sitting around the kitchen table every day pondering what the Founding Fathers intended. I think for some people it may seem like an indulgence and they may think it’s important, but meanwhile, things are out of control; we need to get control of them.

Do you have insight into former President Obama and President Biden’s relationship these days? 

Look, I think they’re friends. Yeah. I mean, I think they’re —

I saw he went and gave some of the advice that, frankly, folks like you have been giving.

You know, I wasn’t in the room when whatever happened happened. So I’m not going to comment on anything that was said between them. All I can tell you is I watched the relationship between two guys who [at the beginning] really didn’t have one — Obama was the junior member of Biden’s Senate committee at the time — and suddenly the roles were reversed. I watched the friendship grow over time, and I think they’re genuinely friends.

Look: Presidents are men of ego. They all are aware of their own legacies and so on. And that said, I think that there’s a lot of respect between them. And I’m sure whatever President Obama said, President Biden took in.

You guys recently had your 15-year reunion for the 2008 campaign. You talked about how the Biden folks put this strategy memo together for the coming campaign. And I know you were not very impressed with it. Tell us a little bit about that.

Yeah, yeah. The only thing that was odd about it is you don’t release a public memo with all your concerns and this and that, but leaving the memo aside, the thing I found aggravating is when you have people out there calling people who have concerns “bedwetters.”

Your buddy, Jim Messina

I think that’s deeply, deeply unhelpful, because sometimes there’s reason to be concerned. And there are a lot of really smart and committed supporters of Biden who have concerns.

What you need to do is contemplate what it is that is concerning people, and decide what is legitimate and what needs to be done. There are people who are really, really committed to Joe Biden who felt a sense of concern and urgency — particularly because Donald Trump is on the other side of this race. So I thought it was extraordinarily tone deaf and unhelpful.

JMart reported recently that the president himself has a nickname for you. 

Yeah. Well, you have to consider the source. But according to JMart — who generally is well-sourced — he called me a “prick” after I said what I said.

I don’t care about that. I don’t blame him. He’s frustrated and probably thought it was unhelpful. Someone who you know — but I won’t say who — sent me a box of buttons that said “Pricks for Biden.” So I guess I’m the chair of that.

I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t really give a shit. I’m 68. You know, everybody in Washington sort of thinks that the most important thing is that the president likes you and that you get invited to parties and shit like that. I’ve been to plenty of parties. I worked in the White House. That’s not the thing.

I certainly didn’t say what I said to be injurious to Joe Biden. Sometimes, the most injurious thing is to say nothing at all.

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