Last week, David Axelrod snipped a red-white-and-blue ribbon to officially open the headquarters for the Institute of Politics, the University of Chicago’s incubator for future policymakers. On the porch of the former seminary dormitory at 5707 South Woodlawn Avenue in Hyde Park, the IOP director, former White House advisor and campaign strategist for President Obama stood alongside members of the semester-old institute’s ideologically mixed board, from Mitt Romney campaign advisor Beth Myers to Obama 2012 deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. The next day, Penguin Press announced the 2014 release of the U. of C. alum’s memoir.
When I sat down to chat with Axelrod in his office in late February, he was in the midst of a winter quarter review of the 2012 campaign—a series of public events including an extended one-on-one with Newt Gingrich—and he had just accepted a position as political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. Tall, sturdy and besuited, Axelrod was sans moustache; he shaved on live TV to raise money for epilepsy research. If the ’stache was his Samson-esque source of campaign prowess, he no longer needs it to operate in the nonpartisan trenches of the IOP. The “big-ass” Fox News mug sitting on his desk was another sign Axelrod has turned over a new leaf. “It speaks to bipartisanship," he said with a laugh.
You’ve vowed 2012 was your last campaign. Is the competitive fire out in you?
I still have great passion for politics, but campaigns are demanding, physically and emotionally. Trying to help create a new generation of leadership is, to me, the ideal capstone for what I’ve done.
Any chance Rahm could coax you back to run his rumored 2016 presidential campaign?
He’s my friend, a fine mayor and I talk to him all the time, and he’s not intimated even in the least that he’s thinking about a 2016 campaign. But whatever race he runs—and I think he’s running for reelection and nothing else—I’m content to watch from a distance.
What advice do you give students who want to get into the shark tank of politics?
“Dive in!” The nature of this work is that you can only learn it by doing. We run an extensive paid internship program so that 80 to 100 students per year take jobs in government and media offices and NGOs.
The IOP emphasizes its nonpartisanship, so it’s curious that the Democratic Party’s most prominent brain is heading up the institute.
Look, I didn’t come here to proselytize. I wouldn’t want to create some sort of partisan indoctrination. The whole premise is to expose young people to practitioners in the field across the political spectrum. I’m not here to promote a party. I’m here to promote an idea, which is public service. We’ve had a lot of my Republican colleagues here, and I think the impression that these young people are getting is you can have differences and still have cordial, productive relationships.
Hearing from students, does their model for what a future politician looks like conflict with who’s currently in Washington?
My message to them is that if they don’t love what’s there, then they have to be willing to fight.
Because there is such acrimony?
Particularly in Washington. It’s a place riven by division and where partisanship and ideology trump common sense and progress. These young people have the ability to change that.
What does the ideal future politician look like to you?
Someone who really understands the country and all of its diversity. Someone who understands that there’s great cynicism about institutions today and who’s going to play a role in restoring faith in those institutions.
Is it as satisfying to talk to Newt Gingrich as it is beating him?
I have differences with Newt Gingrich, but I respect the fact that he’s been in the arena. I feel that way about a lot of the folks who come through here. I don’t agree with some of their orientations on public policy, but I admire them for devoting so much of themselves to public service. It’s also great for the kids to see people who competed vigorously against each other in a positive, constructive conversation.
One of the 2012 campaign narratives was the rise of analytics. Do you see a time when technologists make old-school strategists extinct?
It would be a mistake to say the technologists won the election. They are the field goal team of politics. If you’re on your own 20-yard line, you could have the greatest analytics team in the world but it’s not going to get you 80 yards down the field. You have to have a message that will take you there. This is where the Republican Party makes the mistake: Theirs was not just a technological deficiency.
Does the President still have your ear?
He has my ear whenever he wants. He knows where to reach me.
Register for free spring quarter Institute of Politics events at politics.uchicago.edu.