Obama's Media Maven
Axelrod sees Obama, who was working in Chicago as a community organizer during the Washington years, as a marker of progress, writing the second act of a story that Washington started. "In 1983, after Harold won the primary, he went to the northwest side of Chicago with Walter Mondale. They went to a place called St. Pascal's Catholic Church. And what ensued there was so ugly--the protests--that it became a national story. Twenty-one years later, when Barack ran for the US Senate in the primary against six very strong candidates, he carried every ward on the northwest side except one, and carried the ward that St. Pascal's is in, and I think even the precinct. That's what he was thinking about on primary night. I was thinking, and I told Barack, that Harold Washington is smiling down on us."
What Obama and Washington shared, Axelrod points out--a trait common to many of the successful black candidates he has worked for--is the direct, lived experience of the effects of injustice with a simultaneous faith that the injustice wasn't permanent, that it could be overcome. "In many cases their personal stories are symbolic of the kinds of values that we as a society hold dear even if we haven't always honored them historically," Axelrod says. "The notion that you can overcome great obstacles--[they're] very hopeful figures, and I think that made them very potent politically. They've seen the obstacles and the barriers and they've also overcome them: It shows the work we have to do and the possibility that that work can get done, that you can work for a better future." In other words: They make people feel good about how far we've come.
If the Obama message can be distilled to a single word, it is "hope." It's in the title of his new book (The Audacity of Hope) and the name of his PAC (Hopefund). If you page back through Axelrod's work, it's a word that shows up a lot. All politics traffics in clichés, and hope certainly isn't a new one (Bill Clinton: The Man From Hope), but there's a specific resonance to the concept in post-9/11, mid-Iraq War America. The experience of 9/11 gave Americans a feeling of national solidarity that the country probably hadn't experienced since World War II. Those melancholy days served as a kind of time warp, or glimpse, perhaps, of a future public life without the culture wars: one without wedge issues and the quasi-tribal red-blue divisions. Of course, that unity was all too quickly leveraged to pursue a radically militaristic course of action, but that brief taste has left many Americans wanting more. This is what the Axelrod-Obama brain trust has intuited, and what the Obama campaign holds out as its promise: "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," Obama said during his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote. "But I've got news for them, too: We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
Obama, having grown up stretched across the trenches of the culture wars--black and white, secular and religious, poor neighborhoods and the Ivy League, heartland and the coasts--seems to feel at a gut level the discomfort many Americans have with the culture wars' rituals. In The Audacity of Hope he writes about how the political battles of today can seem rooted in "old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago." And Axelrod, veteran of Chicago's ugly racialized battles, also seems to have a profound understanding of people's yearning for a politics that is somehow less petty and rancorous. Together they have crafted a potent message that speaks to this.
The question is whether a politics free of acrimony can deliver the promise of progress. When I asked Axelrod how he went from working for Washington to working for his erstwhile foe, Mayor Daley, just two years later, he defended it this way: "He reduced the acrimony and became a unifying force, and that was really significant." Of course, in that case the "acrimony" came from the fierce resistance to change, and a return to a more placid politics only came with the monarchical restoration of the king's eldest son.
The hope for a politics of consensus is hardly new. It is the hope embodied in the plaintive, exasperated question asked by Rodney King during America's last spasm of racialized violence: "Can't we all get along?" Axelrod and Obama call it "a new kind of politics," and in their imagining it is a rerun of the Washington race, but this time the empowerment can be shared across the racial divide. This time, there won't be epithets or spit hurled at the candidate. Politics without division; progress without anyone's interests being threatened.
But consensus is a tricky business. Recently the website obamatruth.org mysteriously appeared, featuring a slick three-minute video hit-piece intended to make Obama out to be a money-grubbing, uppity sellout. "In his lust for personal wealth," the site asks, "has Barack Obama sold his moral compass?" Though the site doesn't offer any clues as to its provenance, it is registered to one Joe Novak, a Republican opposition researcher and dirty trickster who during the last election cycle produced a series of notorious negative ads aired on black commercial radio. Axelrod knows Novak well. Back in the 1980s, Novak got his start as a hatchet man for none other than Ed Vrdolyak, the white alderman who was Harold Washington's chief nemesis. Vrdolyak affectionately referred to him as "Low Blow Joe." As Washington learned, as interested as you might be in unity, your enemies get a vote, too.