- Longtime Democratic political consultant
- President Barack Obama’s closest advisor
David M. Axelrod was born February 22, 1955, to Myril Bennett Axelrod (who worked for PM, a leftist New York newspaper whose ranks were penetrated by communists seeking to advance the Stalinist line) and Joseph Axelrod (a psychologist who committed suicide in 1974). David would later describe his parents as “your classic New York leftist Democrats.” He grew up in Manhattan and, from an early age, engaged passionately in politics. At age ten, he canvassed for New York mayoral candidate John Lindsay; when he was thirteen, he sold campaign buttons and bumper stickers promoting Robert Kennedy for President.
Axelrod graduated from New York’s Stuyvesant High School in June 1972 and enrolled, that fall, at the University of Chicago, where he majored in political science and wrote for the student newspaper. In late 1973 or early 1974, he secured a job as a political columnist for the Hyde Park Herald, a local weekly newspaper. His work at the Herald caught the attention of two particularly noteworthy individuals, David Canter (the son of a lifelong communist) and Don Rose (a member of a Communist Party front group). For further details about Canter and Rose, who became mentors to the young Axelrod and helped shape his political development, click here.
In 1977, Axelrod completed his B.A. in political science at the University of Chicago. That same year, Canter and Rose used their influence to help Axelrod secure an internship at the Chicago Tribune. “I … wrote a reference letter for him,” Rose recalls, “that helped him win an internship at the Tribune, which was the next step in his journalism career.” In 1982 Axelrod was promoted, becoming the Tribune’s youngest chief political writer.
In 1984, however, Axelrod, dissatisfied with his career and with the “corporatization of journalism” in general, left the Tribune and sought to establish himself as an advisor/consultant for Democrat political campaigns. His first big opportunity came when he worked for the Senate campaign of Illinois Representative Paul Simon. Originally hired as Simon’s communications director, Axelrod was promoted to co-manager of the entire campaign within two months. In this role, he worked closely with a 25-year-old Rahm Emanuel, who would go on to become President Barack Obama’s chief of staff a quarter-century later.
Following Simon’s successful Senate bid, Axelrod in 1985 founded a political consultancy called Axelrod & Associates, later known as AKP&D Message and Media, which specialized in “representing Democratic candidates and progressive causes.”
Axelrod quickly cultivated a reputation for his aggressive use of negative messaging to discredit his clients’ political rivals. A Chicago Magazine profile from December 1987 dubbed Axelrod a “Hatchet Man” who was ever-prepared to “blast the dickens” out of an opponent. Reflecting Axelrod’s constancy in this regard, a Tribune profile two decades later described him as a “ferocious” competitor who was unafraid to use “venom” to poison the campaigns of rivals, or “brass knuckles” to “bludgeon” his foes.
Further, Axelrod was heralded as a “five-tool consultant,” adept at writing speeches, press releases, and statements; crafting a campaign message; plotting strategy; producing radio and television spots; and acting as a spokesman for candidates.
In 1987, Axelrod’s company was hired to run the re-election campaign of Harold Washington, the incumbent African-American mayor of Chicago who had close ties to the Democratic Socialists of America. Here, Axelrod worked with Don Rose and David Canter. It is also possible that he met Barack Obama, who was then emerging as a community organizer in Chicago, during this period. Certainly by 1992, Axelrod and Obama knew one another. They became acquainted when Obama led a Project Vote voter-registration drive in Chicago that year. Liberal lore maintains that the two men were introduced in 1992 by Bettylu Saltzman, one of Chicago’s leading left-wing Democrats.
Having successfully directed Mayor Washington’s re-election campaign, Axelrod’s political consultancy was propelled into the political limelight. In the years that followed, a number of African-American candidates flocked to Axelrod, in hopes that he might similarly help them win political office. Most prominent among these were Carol Moseley-Braun, who in 1992 became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, and Deval Patrick, the first African-American elected governor of Massachusetts (in 2006).
Other top-echelon Democrats whom Axelrod advised included Patrick Kennedy (congressional campaign in Rhode Island), Rod Blagojevich (gubernatorial campaign in Illinois), Hillary Clinton (2000 U.S. Senate campaign in New York), Eliot Spitzer (2006 gubernatorial campaign in New York), Chris Dodd (U.S. Senate campaign in Connecticut), John Edwards (2004 presidential campaign), and Rahm Emanuel (House of Representatives campaign in 2002). Moreover, Axelrod was Emanuel’s chief political advisor when Emanuel helped stage the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2006. Between 2001 and 2007, the candidates whom Axelrod’s consulting firm represented won 33 of their 42 races.
Axelrod and his consultancy were hired not only by scores of Democratic politicians, but also by the Democratic National Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors Association, the AFL-CIO, the AFSCME, the SEIU, and the Working Families Party.
From the same Chicago address that AKP&D occupies, Axelrod also runs ASK Public Strategies, which focuses not on political candidates but on organizations and corporate clients seeking to swing negative public opinion in their favor. For more information about ASK, click here.
In September 2002, the aforementioned Bettylu Saltzman (a leading left-wing Democrat in Chicago and a longtime admirer of Barack Obama) convened a group of “progressives”—among whom was the longtime radical Marilyn Katz—who together organized an entity called Chicagoans Against the War in Iraq (CAWI). These progressives planned to stage, under the banner of CAWI, an anti-war, anti-President Bush rally the following month in Chicago’s Federal Plaza. Saltzman contacted Barack Obama and asked him to speak at the event. Before accepting Saltzman’s invitation, Obama called Axelrod and sought his advice. Axelrod urged Obama to give a speech that would appeal to the liberal Chicago base, while being careful not to alienate voters of other persuasions. Doing precisely as Axelrod suggested, Obama emerged from his Federal Park address as a public figure whom many Americans (previously unfamiliar with him) found intriguing.
When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Axelrod served as his chief adviser. Reflecting, years later, on that campaign, Axelrod remarked: “This is a really special guy and, if you could get him elected to the Senate, if you could be a part of that, that would be something to be proud of for the rest of your life.” Obama himself has indicated that his close partnership with Axelrod is based upon a deep ideological affinity: “You know, he and I share a basic worldview … I trust his basic take on what the country should be and where we need to move towards—not just on specific policy but how politics should be able to draw on our best and not our worst.” Axelrod agrees completely, saying of Obama: “He’s not just a client. He’s a very good friend of mine. We share a worldview.”
When Obama decided, in early 2007, to run in the following year’s presidential election, Axelrod orchestrated the formal announcement of his candidacy. Notably, Axelrod selected Springfield, Illinois—where Abraham Lincoln had launched his own political career—as the venue for that announcement. In a speech heavily influenced by Axelrod, Obama proceeded to invoke Lincoln six times while touching upon such themes as the “failure of leadership” plaguing not only the U.S. but the world at large. Moreover, it was Axelrod who conceived the “hope and change” and “Yes, we can!” slogans that became the battle cries of the Obama campaign.
Once the campaign was underway, Axelrod said of Obama: “I think he’s unique, and he offers something very special and important in these times. He can heal this country and move it forward in a way that perhaps no one else can.”
Axelrod’s strategy for the Obama campaign was to project a public image that was transcendent, larger than life. Paul Kengor explains:
“In January 2007, Axelrod zeroed in on the Obama image and message. He hired a camera crew to tail the candidate everywhere, the kind of video work at which Axelrod’s firms excel. He then went into seclusion with hours upon hours of video footage to craft five-minute messages. From all this tape, the New York Times noted, Axelrod ‘hoped to wring transcendence.’ He did not want a ‘conventional candidacy.’ He wanted Obama to be set apart not only from the Republican nominee but from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Primary challenger, and a good friend of Axelrod.”
In the 2008 election season, Axelrod’s AKP&D consultancy and a Washington-based firm called GMMB received a combined $343.3 million to handle advertising for Obama’s White House run. It was their task to present Obama to the American people in whatever way was likely to engender positive emotions about the candidate.
At one point during the 2008 presidential campaign, the media asked Axelrod to comment on the controversial political and ideological alliance that Obama had once had with former Weather Undeground terrorist Bill Ayers. Minimizing the significance of that alliance, Axelrod said: “Bill Ayers lives in his [Obama’s] neighborhood. Their kids attend the same school. They’re certainly friendly, they know each other, as anyone whose kids go to school together.” At the time of Axelrod’s statement, Ayers’ three children were in their late twenties and early thirties, whereas Obama’s two daughters, Sasha and Malia, were aged six and nine, respectively.
Some critics have noted that Axelrod, like Obama, also possesses a number of radical associations. His early communist mentors, for instance, were discussed earlier in this profile. In addition, Axelrod sat on the finance board of Chicago’s Saint Sabina Catholic Church, where Michael Pfleger—a longtime supporter of Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, and Louis Farrakhan—served as pastor. Saint Sabina’s official website listed Axelrod as a member of its “Raise the Roof” committee; alongside Axelrod’s name was an open letter from Pfleger asking for $1 million in contributions.
After Obama’s electoral victory in November 2008, Axelrod, who had been the president and sole shareholder of AKP&D since 1985, sold his interest in the company and became a senior advisor to President Obama. As such, his influence over Obama continued to grow. The Politico reported: “There are no limits on his roles inside the Obama administration…. Axelrod is now a pillar for Barack Obama.” The New York Times referred to Axelrod as the “President’s Protector,” the man “who sits closest to the Oval Office.”
During the healthcare-reform debates of 2009-10, AKP&D profited greatly from Obama’s effort to pass the legislation. In 2009 alone, Health Economy Now, a coalition that was promoting an overhaul of America’s healthcare system, paid AKP&D and GMMB a combined $12 million for their advertising services (producing and placing ads).
On January 28, 2011, Axelrod left his advisory post in the White House in order to become the communications director for Obama’s re-election bid. Announcing that this would be the final political campaign for which he would work as an advisor, Axelrod told the media: “I have one campaign left, and it is going to be to try to elect a guy who I think is a great president.”
Vis à vis the strategy he planned to employ on Obama’s behalf, Axelrod pledged from the outset: “I’m going to do exactly what I did last time.” He was true to his word. When former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney eventually emerged as the Republican challenger, Axelrod aggressively portrayed him as the living embodiment of heartless greed: “He [Romney] was very, very good at making a profit for himself and his partners but not nearly as good [at] saving jobs for communities. He is very much the profile of what we’ve seen in the last decade on Wall Street.” Axelrod further derided Romney as a “corporate raider” who had outsourced “tens of thousands of jobs,” “closed down more than 1,000 [businesses],” taken “twelve companies to bankruptcy,” and “made hundreds of millions of dollars” for himself in the process.
In January 2013, two months after Barack Obama’s re-election, Axelrod was named as an advisor to the newly formed Organizing For Action.
In February 2013, NBC News hired Axelrod as a senior political analyst to contribute to broadcasts on both NBC News and the cable network MSNBC.
For additional information on Axelrod, click here.