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David Axelrod Told Obama to Toughen Up

5 years ago
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In 2006, David Axelrod wrote an unblinking assessment of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate:

"You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched."

Axelrod's get-tough man talk is just one of dozens of revelations in "The Battle for America 2008," a new book by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson about the most compelling campaigns of 2008.

In writing about the Obama campaign, Balz and Johnson share excerpts of a private strategy memo from Axelrod to Obama on the subject of Obama's potential run for the presidency. The memo shows Axelrod, who was the campaign's senior strategist and is now senior advisor to the president, encouraged Obama to run sooner, rather than later. The memo notes that history is full of failed candidates who ran past their primes, but has few examples of those who tried too soon.

Axelrod also assesses the young senator's viability as a presidential candidate, and pinpoints Obama's potential Achilles heel as his own political track record that included mostly lucky breaks and cake walks to his position in the U.S. Senate:

"Warning that revelations of past drug use would be used against him, Axelrod worries that Obama won't be able to take the heat that will come in a presidential campaign. 'It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don't know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch.'"

Axelrod also rightly predicts that the Hillary Clinton campaign will frame its contest as one of style vs. substance, and the past vs. the future:

"Her goal will be twofold: to suggest that she has the beef, while we offer only sizzle; and that she is not about the past but the future. But for all her advantages, she is not a healing figure. As much as she tacks to the right, she will have a hard time escaping the well-formulated perceptions of her among swing voters as a left-wing ideologue."

A December 2008 follow-up interview with Balz and Johnson reveals a reflective Obama looking back favorably on his campaign and on Hillary Clinton as a worthy foe. Obama had already asked Clinton to serve as his secretary of state.

"Hillary was just a terrific candidate....That isn't to say that we underestimated John McCain; it's just that we didn't think that their campaign operation was as good. And one of the hardest things for me, during the primary, was finding differences with Hillary. I mean, a lot of the differences between us, substantively, were pretty modest."

As to what the presidential campaign taught him, Obama said, "I have to tell you, and this is in no way an indication of overconfidence -- I was not surprised by the campaign. I felt that, and I said this on the stump, I felt vindicated in my faith in the American people."

The Washington Post will publish more excerpts from The Battle for America 2008 over the weekend, and the two authors will be guests on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday morning.
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