Given his rhetorical skills, Harvard Law pedigree, up-by-the-bootstraps bio and, well, his race, it is hard not to compare recently elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to his friend Barack Obama. Both men entered crowded primaries in which they were definitively not favored. They both inspired a kind of personal pride among supporters that is rare in politics. On the evening of Obama’s convincing primary victory, the crowd and the candidate joined in chanting, “Yes We Can!” and if you listen closely to video of Patrick rallies, you’ll hear the crowd chanting the very same thing. When Patrick looked into the camera in one ad and said the state’s problem wasn’t a “deficit of dollars but a deficit of leadership,” it was hard not to hear echoes of Obama’s oft-used line that the country’s biggest problem isn’t a budget deficit but an “empathy deficit.” And in Patrick’s most effective ad, he stands on a stage delivering an impassioned speech to a crescendo of applause as Obama sits on a stool just behind him, nodding approvingly, his head perfectly framed in the shot.
Which brings us to something else the two men share: David Axelrod, the 51-year-old reporter turned media consultant who was the key media strategist for both men’s campaigns. He’s the one who wrote those ads, framed that shot and came up with the “Yes We Can” tag line. “I don’t bring these messages to candidates,” Axelrod says when I point out the similarities. “I look for candidates who exemplify and reflect those messages.” In the cases of Obama and Patrick, he says, the work is a collaboration. “They take and improve on what you bring them; they deliver it well because they believe in it. It’s like riffing with great musicians.”
Even though he lives 1,000 miles from the notoriously clubby world of political consulting, Axelrod has become one of its most successful and respected practitioners. Mark McKinnon, who produced George W. Bush’s ads in the last cycle and now works for John McCain, calls Axelrod “the best media guy out there who doesn’t have a ring.” With his quick wit and knack for soundbites (“The Icon gets hoisted,” Axelrod said of the media’s treatment of star candidates, “and then it becomes a piñata”), the onetime Chicago Tribune political writer is a favorite of reporters seeking quotes. Charming as he can be with journalists, those who have worked with him say, he can be “aggressive” and “extremely difficult” in the trenches of a campaign. Colleagues point out that he’s uncommonly idealistic for someone in his line of work, though a veteran Chicago reporter noted that this has its limits: “He’s a principled guy, but he’s not a philanthropist. The candidates he’s worked for have been well funded, and he’s made very good money doing what he does.”
Axelrod is known for becoming close to his candidates, and indeed, he has become Obama’s closest political adviser, talking strategy daily and producing the two videos recently posted to Obama’s website. Reclining in a chair in his Chicago office the week before Obama announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, Axelrod was subdued, seemingly exhausted, but intense and hyperarticulate. Like Obama he speaks with what can seem a refreshing frankness, though just a few hours later, going over my notes, it was clear that he had remained scrupulously on message.
Axelrod’s firm, AKP Media, which he runs with his partners John Kupper and David Plouffe, has handled a series of high-profile national and state campaigns, from John Edwards’s 2004 presidential run to Tom Vilsack’s and Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial races; but for much of its two decades the firm’s bread and butter has been mayoral races, with a particularly strong track record in electing black candidates. Indeed, ever since working on the re-election campaign of Chicago’s Harold Washington in 1987, Axelrod has developed something of a novel niche for a political consultant: helping black politicians convince white voters to support them. With Obama’s bid for the presidency, Axelrod’s skill in this area will face the ultimate test.