WASHINGTON — David Axelrod was sitting at his desk on a recent afternoon — tie crooked, eyes droopy and looking more burdened than usual. He had just been watching some genius on MSNBC insist that he and President Obama’s other top aides were failing miserably and should be replaced.
“Typical Washington junk we have to deal with,” Mr. Axelrod said in an interview. The president is deft at blocking out such noise, he added, suddenly brightening. “I love the guy,” he said, and in the space of five minutes, repeated the sentiment twice.
Critics, pointing to the administration’s stalled legislative agenda, falling poll numbers and muddled messaging, suggest that kind of devotion is part of the problem at the White House. Recent news reports have cast the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as the administration’s chief pragmatist, and Mr. Axelrod, by implication, as something of a swooning loyalist. “I’ve heard him be called a ‘Moonie,’ ” dismissed Mr. Axelrod’s close friend, former Commerce Secretary William Daley. Or as the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, joked, “the guy who walks in front of the president with rose petals.”
Still, it is a charge that infuriates Mr. Axelrod, the president’s closest aide, longest-serving adviser and political alter ego. “I guess I have been castigated for believing too deeply in the president,” he said, lapsing into the sarcasm he tends to deploy when playing defense.
No one has taken the perceived failings of the administration more personally or shown the strain as plainly as Mr. Axelrod, who as White House senior adviser oversees every aspect of how Mr. Obama is presented. As such, Mr. Axelrod, the president’s mustachioed message maven, has felt the brunt of criticism over what many view as the administration’s failure to clearly define and disseminate Mr. Obama’s agenda and accomplishments for the country.
“The Obama White House has lost the narrative in the way that the Obama campaign never did,” said James Morone, a political scientist at Brown University. “They essentially took the president’s great strength as a messenger and failed to use it smartly.”
Mr. Axelrod said he accepts some blame for what he called “communication failures,” though he acknowledges bafflement that the administration’s efforts to stimulate the economy in a crisis, overhaul health care and prosecute two wars have been so routinely framed by opponents as the handiwork of a big-government, soft-on-terrorism, politics-of-the-past ideologue.
“For me, the question is, why haven’t we broken through more than we have?” Mr. Axelrod said. “Why haven’t we broken through?”
That question has dogged Mr. Axelrod in recent months and has preoccupied Mr. Obama’s inner circle, fueling speculation that the vaunted “No Drama Obama” team might be fracturing. Not surprisingly, the White House has no patience for this.
“You guys want to fit people into boxes and categories that are just not accurate,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Mr. Axelrod would not discuss what counsel he offered to Mr. Obama, though he denies any “fissure with my buddy Rahm” and any charge that he is too infatuated with the president to recognize the political risks of his ambitious agenda.
“Believe me, if we were charting this administration as a political exercise, the first thing we would have done would not have been a massive recovery act, stabilizing the banks and helping to keep the auto companies from collapsing,” he said. “Those would not even be the first hundred things he would want to do.”
But Mr. Axelrod argued that the president, confronted with “breathtaking challenges,” did not have the luxury of moving more slowly or methodically.
In an interview in his office, Mr. Axelrod was often defiant, saying he did not give a “flying” expletive “about what the peanut gallery thinks” and did not live for the approval “of the political community.” He denounced the “rampant lack of responsibility” of people in Washington who refuse to solve problems, and cited the difficulty of trying to communicate through what he calls “the dirty filter” of a city suffused with the “every day is Election Day sort of mentality.”
When asked how he would assess his performance, Mr. Axelrod shrugged. “I’m not going to judge myself on that score,” he said. But then he shot back: “Have I succeeded in reversing a 30-year trend of skepticism and cynicism about government? I confess that I have not. Maybe next year.”
The criticism of the administration’s communication strategy — leveled by impatient Democrats, gleeful Republicans, bloggers and cable chatterers — clearly stings Mr. Axelrod, as well as the circle of family, friends and fans he has acquired over three decades in politics as a consultant and, before that, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune.
“Every time I hear that the White House is getting the message wrong, it breaks my heart,” said Mr. Axelrod’s sister, Joan, an educational therapist in Boston.
Ms. Axelrod says that while her brother is devoted to Mr. Obama, he is not a sycophant. She paused when asked whether he admired the president too much. “He is very, very loyal, sometimes to a fault,” she said.
Added Mr. Gibbs: “The list of people who have to deliver bad news to the president is very small, and David is first on that list. I’m probably second.”
Mr. Axelrod’s friends worry about the toll of his job — citing his diet (cold-cut-enriched), his weight (20 pounds heavier than at the start of the presidential campaign), sleep deprivation (five fitful hours a night), separation from family (most back home in Chicago) and the fact that at 55, he is considerably older than many of the wunderkind workaholics of the West Wing. He wakes at 6 in his rented condominium just blocks from the White House and typically returns around 11.
Unlike other presidential alter egos, Mr. Axelrod is not viewed as a surrogate “brain” (like Karl Rove), a suspicious outsider (like Dick Morris in the Clinton White House) or a co-president (James Baker in the first Bush White House). Sometimes portrayed as a bare-knuckled Chicago operative, he is also a bantering walrus of a man in mustard-stained sleeves who describes himself as a “kibbitzer,” not a “policy guy.”
Sitting at his desk next door to the Oval Office last week, he was tearing into a five-inch corned beef sandwich on rye with a Flintstone-size turkey drumstick waiting on deck. “I am the poster child for the president’s obesity program,” he said.
A few minutes later, Mr. Obama walked in unannounced, scattering two aides like startled pigeons. “Hey,” Mr. Axelrod said by way of greeting (no “sir” or “Mr. President.”) Mr. Obama surveyed the spread on Mr. Axelrod’s desk with a slight smirk.
“What is this, King Arthur’s court?” he asked, then pulled Mr. Axelrod aside to talk about a health care speech he was about to deliver.
Mr. Axelrod is often at the president’s side; he sits in on policy and national security meetings and is routinely the last person he talks to before making a decision. He directs the administration’s external presentation, overseeing polls, focus groups and speeches and appearing on the Sunday shows. Mr. Emanuel describes Mr. Axelrod as “an integrator of the three P’s” — press, policy and politics — “and how they make a whole.”
White House officials describe Mr. Axelrod’s focus as big themes rather than day-to-day sound bites. There has been no shortage of Democrats willing to second-guess his messaging approach.
“They made a big mistake right out of the box with the Inaugural Address,” said former Senator Bob Kerrey, adding that a president pledging bipartisanship should not have disparaged the previous administration in his speech, as many listeners believed Mr. Obama did.
Chris Lehane, a former top aide to Vice President Al Gore, says the administration should tell a clearer story. “They have been enormously capable in dealing with the day-to-day challenges of the government,” Mr. Lehane said. “But they don’t seem to get the credit they deserve for that because they’ve communicated no overarching big idea or philosophical framework of where they want to take the country.”
Others question what happened to the Mr. Axelrod who so effectively marketed Mr. Obama, the candidate, as a change agent. He and some defenders, though, say that trying to explain a president who is dealing with a fusillade of difficult governing issues is far different.
“In a campaign, you’re not held to the same standard of actually doing what you say you’re going to do,” said Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director and Obama campaign adviser. Mr. Axelrod can still sound like the self-described idealist who developed Mr. Obama’s campaign message, expressing impatience with what he calls “the gritty pragmatist school that says you have just got to accept the system” in Washington. “I’m not surprised that there are people who never liked us in the first place trying to have a big ‘I told you so’ about how you really can’t change the system,” he said.
Mr. Axelrod has never lived in Washington before and has come to loathe what he calls “the palace intrigue pathology of Washington.”
“I know I’m not cut out for this town,” though he has respect for the people who work there, said Mr. Axelrod, who tries to spend one week a month with his wife, Susan, who lives in Chicago, as do two of his three children.
Mr. Axelrod is tired, but he says that is nothing new. “I have dealt with a lot of ‘real stuff’ in my life,” he said, referring to his daughter’s long struggle with epilepsy, his father’s suicide and his wife’s bout with breast cancer. “The disapprobation of some folks in Washington doesn’t seem very meaningful.”
His friends still worry. “I think he’s getting close to a burnout kind of thing,” said Sam Smith, a former Chicago Tribune sports writer, basing this not on anything Mr. Axelrod told him. Mr. Smith added that he speaks only sporadically to his friend these days, mainly about sports, and that Mr. Axelrod has always driven himself exceedingly hard.
As Mr. Obama began his term, Mr. Axelrod told him he would stay at the White House for a finite period — believed to be about two years — and that time frame remains unchanged. “I’ve learned more things in the last year than I will ever learn in my life,” he said. “It’s just something you can’t do forever, or it will kill you.”