Top Obama Campaign Strategist Turns to Training Others for Public Service

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David Axelrod
December 17, 2012

After serving with distinction as an adviser to the last two Democratic presidents and many other holders of high political office, David Axelrod now hopes to inspire a new generation of recruits to public service.

Until early last year, Mr. Axelrod was a senior adviser to a friend of 20 years, Barack Obama. He then became a top strategist for the president's re-election campaign, just as he had been a key player in then-Senator Obama's 2008 presidential run.

But Mr. Axelrod, who is 57, will shift gears on January 1, when he becomes the inaugural director of the University of Chicago's new, nonpartisan Institute of Politics. There, he says by phone, "the most important thing I can impart is how essentially important the public arena is."

While offering courses for undergraduate students, the institute will run a fellows program and invite leading practitioners of public policy and service to the Chicago campus.

The institute will also offer an internship program to place students with political campaigns; governmental, public-policy, and nonprofit organizations; and publications with public-policy orientations.

And its speakers forum will present key figures from those worlds. "I want to bring them to campus to talk about issues around their expertise," says Mr. Axelrod.

His own experience would seem to make him the ideal teacher of the ways of politics and policy making. He grew up in Manhattan, where his mother was a journalist for a left-wing newspaper. He worked on political campaigns before his teens. At 17 he began studying political science at the University of Chicago—as an appropriately hairy undergraduate, photographs reveal.

After joining the staff of the Chicago Tribune, he became, by the age of 27, its city-hall bureau chief and political columnist. He worked for Sen. Paul Simon's unsuccessful 1988 run for the Democratic presidential nomination; then he founded a highly successful political- and media-consulting company.

Starting in the mid-1980s, he advised several mayoral campaigns, including the re-election pitch of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. In fact, Mr. Axelrod specialized in winning liberal voters over to African-American candidates, including, in 2006, to Deval Patrick, another friend of President Obama, who won his first term as governor of Massachusetts that year.

Mr. Axelrod says the institute is a logical next step in his career: "I've always had it in my mind to do something like this." From 1998 to 2005, he taught a seminar course at Northwestern University that brought students together with practitioners in public communications and strategy. At the Institute of Politics, he will expand such arrangements. Because the University of Chicago is on the city's South Side, one of the country's hottest arenas of urban politics, "we're going to take advantage of that," says Mr. Axelrod. "But we're going to try to operate across the political spectrum, including internationally."

Will Mr. Axelrod, a longtime booster of Democratic causes, invite to the institute even, say, leaders of the Tea Party movement?

"Absolutely," he says. "We want to bring the broadest possible spectrum of views to this campus." He professes "high regard for people in the public arena, including people I've competed against." He points to the inclusion on the institute's board of the likes of Mike Murphy, a prominent Republican consultant.

To maintain order and civility, Mr. Axelrod will be able to rely on his much-admired skill in negotiating peace among opponents. He can also call on a sharp sense of humor. He has long been a reporters' favorite for off-the-cuff zingers like his one about the news media's treatment of star candidates: "The icon gets hoisted, and then it becomes a piñata."

In The Nation in 2007, Christopher Hayes cited that comment to illustrate Mr. Axelrod's reputation for a "quick wit and knack for sound bites." But he also noted another much-remarked aspect of Mr. Axelrod's personality: diehard idealism.

But "idealism is not enough," says Mr. Axelrod. He will seek to impress upon students that "to me the most admirable people in public life and politics, throughout history, have been the people who were able to meld idealism with a pragmatic instinct for getting things done."