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Believer: My Forty Years in Politics

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New York Times Book Review
“A stout defense--indeed, the best I have read--of the Obama years."

A New York Times  Bestseller

David Axelrod has always been a believer. Whether as a young journalist investigating city corruption, a campaign consultant guiding underdog candidates against entrenched orthodoxy, or as senior adviser to the president during one of the worst crises in American history, Axelrod held fast to his faith in the power of stories to unite diverse communities and ignite transformative political change. Now this legendary strategist, the mastermind behind Barack Obama’s historic election campaigns, shares a wealth of stories from his forty-year journey through the inner workings of American democracy. Believer is the tale of a political life well lived, of a man who never gave up on the deepest promises our country has to offer.

Believer reveals the roots of Axelrod’s devotion to politics and his faith in democratic change. As a child of the ’60s in New York City, Axelrod worked his first campaigns during a tumultuous decade that began with soaring optimism and ended in violence and chaos. As a young newspaperman in Chicago during the 1970s and ’80s, Axelrod witnessed another world transformed when he reported on the dissolution of the last of the big city political machines—Richard Daley, Dan Rostenkowski, and Harold Washington—along with the emergence of a dynamic black independent movement that ultimately made Obama’s ascent possible.

After cutting his teeth in the rollicking world of Chicago journalism, Axelrod switched careers to become a political strategist. His unorthodox tactics during his first campaign helped him get Paul Simon unexpectedly elected to the Senate, and soon Axelrod’s counsel was sought by the greatest lights of the Democratic Party. Working for path breakers like Hillary Clinton, Deval Patrick, and Rahm Emanuel—and morally conflicted characters like Rod Blagojevich and John Edwards—Axelrod, for better and worse, redefined the techniques by which modern political campaigns are run.

The heart of Believer is Axelrod’s twenty-year friendship with Barack Obama, a warm partnership that inspired both men even as it propelled each to great heights. Taking a chance on an unlikely candidate for the U.S. Senate, Axelrod ultimately collaborated closely with Obama on his political campaigns, and served as the invaluable strategist who contributed to the tremendous victories of 2008 and 2012. Switching careers again, Axelrod served as senior adviser to the president during one of the most challenging periods in national working at Obama’s side as he battled an economic disaster; navigated America through two wars; and fought to reform health care, the financial sector, and our gridlocked political institutions. In Believer , Axelrod offers a deeper and richer profile of this extraordinary figure—who in just four years vaulted from the Illinois State Senate to the Oval Office—from the perspective of one who was at his side every step of the way.

Spanning forty years that include corruption and transformation, turmoil and progress, Believer takes readers behind the closed doors of politics even as it offers a thrilling call to democratic action. Axelrod’s Believer is a powerful and inspiring memoir enlivened by the charm and candor of one of the greatest political strategists in recent American history. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, author of  The Bully Pulpit  and  Team of Rivals
“Beautifully written with warmth, humor, and remarkable self-awareness,  Believer  is one of the finest political memoirs I have ever read.”

528 pages, Hardcover

First published February 10, 2015

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David Axelrod

30 books48 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 292 reviews
Profile Image for judy.
947 reviews18 followers
April 7, 2015
How can you not love Axlerod's description of Chicago politics? As anyone knows who has lived through Daley I, Daley II, and the Interregnum, it's the finest political theater anywhere. The close-up of how Obama ended up running when he had far less experience than conventional wisdom would decree, was quite interesting. Oddly enough, I found the story of the Presidential campaigns (for which Axelrod lives) a tad disappointing. I'm used to politics as a blood sport even among members of the staff. Through Axelrod's eyes there were problems but not people clashes. Either Axlerod is discreet or the nicest man alive or he chose to leave out the good stuff lest he discourage future "Believers". I suspect the latter although he does seem like a really good guy. The book was a pleasant break for those of us, who after a lifetime,find we can no longer believe.
Profile Image for Russell R Miller.
23 reviews8 followers
February 17, 2015
interesting and a bit sad at the same time.

David Axelrod takes us through the presidential story from a very early time before Obama was even in the U.S. Senate. Having been in campaigns and even run for office I can sympathize with him in trying to keep the candidate on the proper path, and at the same time not so antagonize him so not to be excluded from additional advice and a personal bond. There is an underlying sadness that the relationship although close somehow didn't develop the intimacy you would've thought it would have. No doubt this is almost always true with a candidate and elected official and their aides. Axelrod does a good job being constantly reminding the reader of Obama's aspirations and hopes that he can transform the political process and achieve substantial goals. It helps a lot in the understanding of President Obama.
Profile Image for Sonja.
62 reviews6 followers
April 24, 2015
Parts of this book were fascinating. I was very interested in learning about Axe's rise through politics, and the ups and downs of the campaigns.

However, he lacks the self-awareness to make this a truly great memoir. He seems to be unconscious of the amount of spin he puts on everything. Axelrod is a campaigner & has built his career on spin, so it shouldn't be surprising. But at a certain point, it became incredibly frustrating to feel that the entire book was just one long campaign ad for Obama.
It doesn't feel at all like a memoir, it feels like a retroactive ad. He writes in sound bites. He mentions over and over "the cold political calculus of Washington," but never acknowledges that HE'S DOING IT TOO. I felt that there were several scenarios throughout the book where he failed to tell the whole story in a fair and balanced way in order to elicit a specific reaction from the reader. That's the goal of campaign ads, but it's frankly a bit insulting to the intelligence of readers when you try to do it in a memoir.
350 reviews58 followers
April 5, 2023
Axelrod's first part of the book is frank and revealing about his father's suicide and his mother's coldness to him. His details of how Mayor Daley stuffed the ballot box in several elections and especially how Daley won the presidential election for JFK is fascinating. (See page 27). But as soon as he meets Barack Hussein Obama, his credibility tanks as you would expect as Axelrod makes his living by being a spin doctor. On Page 316 his hero worship of Obama goes off the rails as he compares Obama to being a rock star.
Axelrod never mentions how Barack's 2012 budget was defeated UNAMIOUSLY(!)in the US House and US Senate (Washington Times May 16,2012) and Barack's failure to close Guantanamo Bay as per his campaign promise was for economic reasons. The most egregious spin is the offhand remarks on the catastrophe at Benghazi (page 471) as they were more concerned with the political fallout rather than how that horrible disaster should have been avoided.
Profile Image for Carol Storm.
Author 28 books182 followers
April 18, 2018
So much better than the usual political biography. David Axelrod has an authentic voice and actually tells about his whole life, not just working for Barack Obama as a campaign manager and speech writer.

There were so many great things about this book. Axelrod as a little boy, seeing JFK in 1960. The descriptions of machine politics in old-time Chicago. (Fans of the 70's cult TV series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER will recognize the deli food from Manny's, as well as brothers Sidney and Marshall Korchak!) Even though Axelrod is best known for working with President Obama, he gives candid pictures of many political greats (and not so greats) from John Edwards to John McCain. I also thought the family sections about his wife's many sacrifices and the long-term illness of his daughter were incredibly moving.

My only complaint is that the book runs out of steam once Obama reaches the White House. The last few chapters feel rushed, and it's obvious that Axelrod is painfully embarrassed by some of the decisions Obama made, particularly prolonging US involvement in Afghanistan. While there are some very caustic and cynical remarks about the generals, it's highly revealing that there are no first-hand accounts of President Obama interacting with regular combat troops, or explaining the reasons for their mission, let alone comforting the grieving families of troops who did not come home. One gets the impression that Axelrod is secretly embarrassed that the President was forced to support a war he never really believed in, and at the same time vaguely resentful of the troops for suffering and dying and becoming such a drain on the president's valuable time. We're told that Obama went to see a cargo plane of flag-draped military coffins from Afghanistan being unloaded, but what emotions, if any, the great man actually felt are not revealed here.

Regardless of Obama's human shortcomings, however, David Axelrod seems like a genuinely nice man, and this is a really wonderful book and an unusually candid look at modern politics.
34 reviews11 followers
August 23, 2020
This was a nice read through the eyes of Axelrod on his story and the campaigns of President Obama. I came across this one after watching the Master Class from Axelrod and Rove on campaign strategy, which was also fascinating!
Profile Image for Jim.
1,128 reviews66 followers
May 29, 2017
I have to admit I read this for a book discussion group but I found it a very enjoyable and readable book. Once I got into it, the 500+ pages went fast. It certainly made for a good discussion, pro and con ...It does help if you have an interest in politics. Axelrod not only gives us an insider's look at the Obama campaigns and presidency, but relates the story of his life. It all started in New York when he was taken to a JFK rally during the election of 1960. Although only a small child at that time, he became very interested in politics (I was interested in dinosaurs at that time). A crucial decision that he made in his life was to go to the University of Chicago and then become a journalist there in the city run by "Boss" Daley. In this way, he learned a lot about big-city politics. He especially learned a lot from Harold Washington's campaign to become the first African-American mayor of Chicago and this would help him guide Obama when he ran for senator and then president.. Axelrod left journalism to become a political operative, advising a number of candidates on their campaigns. One strong liberal candidate was Paul Simon who became US Senator from Illinois and Axelrod worked for him in his presidential bid in 1988 ( anyone remember that?). But at the heart of his story is Axelrod's growing bond with a young black man with the strange name of Barack Obama and his helping him to become a senator and then president. It was certainly his strategy that beat Hillary Clinton in the hard-fought primaries in 2008. After Obama's historic victory over McCain-Palin, Axelrod was there in the White House helping to fight the battles for a healthcare system, the stimulus, Wall Street reform etc. Finally, after the eight years of the Obama presidency, Axelrod retired to spend time with his family. I think the Democrats really could have used his help in 2016 (the book was written before Trump's election and it would be interesting to hear his opinions on that)!
Profile Image for Srinath Jagannathan.
2 reviews1 follower
February 18, 2015
Frank and disarmingly honest account

It's not surprising that a master of messaging would write an engrossing book largely covering one of the most eventful periods of world history. But what comes across most starkly is Axelrod's immunity to the effects of the very process he so expertly deployed throughout his career - unbridled faith through repetitive exhortations and self-delusion.

It's not hard to find partisanship or excuses or willful dismissal of opposing viewpoints in this book. But the innumerable exposes more than make up for bias. No one is spared, not least President Obama or David Axelrod or even his mother!

Axelrod demonstrates a unique honesty in his narrative. He never stops believing, and yet he never fully succumbs to purpose or passion. I truly learned more about writing than about politics from this book, and the exposition on politics was quite substantial.

The book was an absolute joy and pleasure to read, both for its content and its presentation.
56 reviews1 follower
March 23, 2015
Great book about an interesting man who was close to many well-known politicians. He tells of his personal tragedies and also of his triumphs in a way that makes it hard not to like him a great deal. Given his support of mostly Democrats, this book will likely be viewed as highly partisan. Maybe it is. I loved it, especially the lead up to Obama's presidential campaign.
4 reviews32 followers
January 12, 2017
David Axelrod's book provides an in-depth understanding behind the scenes about Chicago politics and Barack Obama. He provided this behind the scenes through his perspective and his history in politics. It was so fascinating to hear about his journey in politics and I just wanted to read more.
Profile Image for John Gurney.
194 reviews18 followers
June 13, 2016
David Axelrod started his career as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune before becoming a political consultant with three decades of experience culminating in Barrack Obama's election and reelection.

Because political views color the lens one uses to read a book like this, full disclosure: my outlook is not easy to pigeon hole, but to call me a small-l libertarian, #neverTrump, moderate Republican is fair. I enjoyed Axelrod's Believer even though I don't share a lot in common with him. Axelrod is, unsurprisingly for someone in his role, very partisan and a down-the-line liberal Democrat. It appears some of the areas where Obama veered from party orthodoxy, like free trade, are places where Axelrod eschews the party line.

The book moves as a rapid pace from Axelrod's childhood to college to his brief career in journalism and onto his political consulting career. His prose is excellent.

It's easy to hate political consultants who bring us silly little sayings like "Yes, we can". In fairness to the trade, they are giving the voting public what it wants, which is snippets of information shrouded in emotion, out-of-context quotes, and platitudes.

I found it fascinating to see how Axelrod justifies his clients and his opponents. As one would expect for someone who worked for Chicago office seekers, he backed a few who went onto jail such as Danny Rostenkowski and Rod Blagojevich. He also backed the slimy Senator John Edwards for president. In these cases, Axelrod writes he was taken by their "stories" and charisma and, at least, speak of "reform". It is obvious, long shot stories like Obama or Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick or Blago impressed Axelrod. This book inadvertently shows the risk of getting too impressed about people who rise above difficult childhoods because they may be as crooked and dishonest as any other. He had seen some of this as a reporter with Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne who pretended to be a reformer to get elected, but then, cynically opted for machine politics when in office.

There are interesting vignettes with Carol Moseley Braun, Dick Morris, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Richard Daley, Harold Washington, Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden, Rahm Emmanuel, Nancy Pelosi, the Obamas, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and even Donald Trump.

I also noted Axelrod's partisanship. A very small number of Republicans such as former Senator Lugar get positive marks, but he thinks almost all are either bad people or, if decent, completely wrong-headed. He has nothing but ill will towards the presidency of George W. Bush, yet he commends Bush's "patriotism" on going the extra mile to ensure a smooth transition. I imagine his day-to-day work was much easier being able to think the other side is always wrong and often unethical.

Axelrod helped find Obama. He was instrumental in Obama's improbable rise to the US Senate and, then, winning the presidency. He writes of the bipartisan hope of Obama. I suspect Axelrod meant it. Yet, he fails to see that the partisanship he largely espoused, when coupled with mirror image stonewalling on the other side, leads to partisan quagmire. Axelrod spends many pages on the promise and hope of Obama; the title comes from Axelrod being an Obama "believer." Still, Obama hit Washington and had to cast off his promise of vetoing earmarks. The first spending bill had 9,000 of them, yet, the Congress demanded them. Axelrod also wrote of decisions that were made to add an individual mandate to health care ("ObamaCare") although his ads had attacked Hillary Clinton for the same as well as to tax health care benefits after attacking John McCain for just that in the 2008 campaign. On page 170, he describes Senator Obama's thoughts about the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Roberts. While Obama conceded Roberts was, "qualified in every way," he voted against him both out of ideology but also, interestingly, with an eye to satisfying the liberal base in a presidential primary. This is hardly Earth-shattering, yet, it shows why bipartisanship doesn't often occur, and these words would come back to haunt Obama in 2016 when he had his own SOTUS nominee.

On the negative side, Axelrod writes a few things he must know better about. On page 403, he mentions Bush "go-it-alone" foreign policy, really about the Iraq War, which is flat wrong and I wonder if he started believing his own political messaging. Tony Blair's U.K. famously was part of the Iraq coalition as were Italy, Australia, Spain, and many others. We recall France and Germany choose not to partake, but that's not going alone.

Even worse was his pg. 224 comment, "millions of white voters, particularly in the South, who had shifted to the Republican Party over the years almost entirely over issues of race." That is wrong. Issues like abortion, taxes, religion, busing, muscular foreign policy, gay rights, and others were clearly among the reasons as the GOP and Democrats shifted from being coalitions of conservatives and liberals to more ideologically pure entities. Furthermore, the civil rights action of the 1960's did not cause a sudden shift from Democrats to GOP in the South. It also started in the more moderate parts of the South, especially in suburbs around Dallas and Atlanta, including as the suburban Houston U.S. House district G.H.W.Bush would win, and took decades to hit the more backward Deep South. White Southern voters were still shifting from the Democrats to the GOP in the 1990s, 2000's, and even in the 2010's when the Southern Senatorial delegation became more Republican than ever before. Many Southern Democrats in the US House lost and flipped their districts, for the first time since Reconstruction, to the GOP in 1994, 2010, and even 2014. Are we really to believe 2010 or 2014 voters only then realized the Civil Rights Act had passed four decades before? It also is true Southern states had elected minority Republicans to the US Senate (Martinez & Rubio in Florida, Cruz in Texas, and the black Tim Scott in South Carolina) and for Governor (Jindal in Louisiana and Haley in South Carolina) which aren't consistent with a wellspring of racism. Racism certainly existed, but Axelrod's strong statement of "almost entirely."

Yet, being a believer your guy is righteous and being a believer the other side is filled with crooks, idiots, hypocrites, and racists probably makes writing political ad copy palatable for nearly forty years. Although I found Axelrod's virtual hero worship of Obama and his Democrat partisanship to be a bit trying, I enjoyed reading the book and award it four stars.
Profile Image for Carmen.
418 reviews
March 27, 2018
So, so fun to listen to. It's like David Axelrod tucks you in a night and tells you bedtime stories about Obama. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Jana.
704 reviews
February 27, 2015
I enjoyed this behind the scenes look at high-profile campaign work and the glimpses into the Axelrod family. What a career and what a life.
Profile Image for Justin Tapp.
641 reviews65 followers
December 28, 2016
I began this book just before the November, 2016 election and finished it in those incredibly sobering days afterward. (The 2008 election was somewhat similar to 2016 in that voters went with the candidate that least resembled their perception of Washington.) I listened to this in Axelrod's own voice, which is the best way to do it. This might be a good look at what it's like to be a professional campaigner, writer, marketer. Axelrod is famous for being Pres. Obama's political adviser, but this book covers 40 years of campaigns mostly involved in Chicago politics. I followed it with Jonathan Alter's The Center Holds, which is a detailed account of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, and found that Axelrod left out much of interest in that campaign and was perhaps not as self-deprecatory in this book as he could have been. Alter's more detailed account casts some doubt on Axelrod's spin here, and how Axelrod apparently left out some internal squabbles from his memoir.

In this book, and from what I've noticed following him on Twitter for a year or so, Axelrod seems to be a fairly stand-up guy. He's deeply committed to his family and keenly aware of his Jewish heritage. He's also for hire in a dirty business, but prefers to hitch his star to candidates he finds personally likable.

Axelrod is the son of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and migrated to New York. He tells the sad tale of his parents, who divorced and were ultimately unable to reconcile. His mother was an "elitist" career woman, and his father was not of that ilk. Axelrod's first campaign first political exposure was as a boy at a JFK rally, and he compares this to watching Obama in Iowa in 2012. He finds both men ideal candidates. He volunteered for Robert Kennedy and became a paid volunteer for a "hack" of the New York General Assembly. He quickly felt the stench of working for an empty-suit candidate whose seat was bought by the candidate's wealthy father. Axelrod went to the University of Chicago (where he teaches today) and got into journalism, originally writing for the Village Voice when he was back in New York. His willingness to do whatever it took to get a job landed him at the Chicago Tribune as a 23 year old working the late night crime beats and getting a view of the Chicago political machine. A big break came when he was assigned to follow an unlikely mayoral candidate's race and that candidate ended up winning--Axelrod was the only journalist who knew much about him.

While covering the mayor's office, Axelrod saw the outright Chicago corruption up close. There is much to dislike about Chicago in this book, and perhaps Axelrod does not realize how the label of "Chicago politics" follows him warily nationwide today. Somewhere while covering the mayor's office, the idea of writing for a candidate entered Axelrod's mind since he understood better how the media operated and had connections. He joined the 1984 Senate campaign of Democrat Paul Simon and was instrumental in shaping the message of the campaign. Axelrod's strategy was to run positive ads rather than attack, and Simon beat the Republican Percy despite Reagan's sweep nationally. This campaign also introduced Axelrod to Rahm Emanuel. From there, Axelrod starts his private campaign marketing firm and looks to build his career further. He specializes in creating ads that "tell a story." In each campaign, he seems to personally identify with the simple message he gives each candidate. The "jobs candidate" or the "big business" candidate, etc.

There's a shallowness to his thinking on policy that has tainted every race since--that trade is bad, or free enterprise isn't as noble as being a career politician, etc. For example, Axelrod defends the populist anti-trade, anti-outsourcing arguments that has made America more xenophobic, ignore the benefits of trade (that even Obama has espoused), ruined American politics, and precisely helped Trump create a platform on the issue in 2016. Axelrod writes as though he believes those things, even though some of his supported candidates have shown they have not actually. As a result, you have candidates today (Hillary Clinton most recently) who have to take one position publicly and another privately when they meet with donors (as her email leaks made clear of her "dream" of a hemispheric customs union while flip-flopping on her support for TPP).

Axelrod looks back on those days away from his wife and children with regret. His daughter was diagnosed early on with epilepsy and the family has since tried every treatment imaginable in the hopes of a cure or greater relief. This pushes him in the policy area of research and funding for special needs children. That does not come up a lot in the book, but his concern for his family does.

In 1987, Axelrod joined the re-election campaign of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, who died shortly after winning. It is here that the ugly racist side of Chicago politics comes out (this is the era that police are now being indicted for grave abuses now). In 1989, Chicago had the nickname of "Beirut on the Lake," for its ongoing gang violence, and Axelrod works on the campaigns of other black candidates. Around this time, he is introduced to Bill Clinton before Clinton officially declared his candidacy. Axelrod turned down an opportunity to be Communications Director of the Clinton campaign because of his lament of his long absences from his family and his epileptic daughter (the job went to George Stephanopolous). He then stays out of major campaigns until his daughter is more grown up. (Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, joins the Clinton White House.) In 2000, he turned down a Gore campaign invitation because of his wife's cancer diagnosis. (His family-first philosophy makes him similar to Barack Obama, who also had strong family considerations and moved his mother-in-law into the White House with him.) He worked some on Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.

Axelrod opines on the "evolution of Rahm Emanuel," who successfully ran for Congress in 2002 and became a good soldier of the Democratic party, recruiting successful Democratic candidates in Red States (the "Blue-Dog Democrats"). Axelrod worked for Emanuel in 2006 in helping elect that group. They maintained a good working relationship throughout the book and Axelrod tells stories about how Emanuel operates. Both have Jewish roots and are well-versed in Chicago politics, but perhaps no politician is more profane than Emanuel.

Axelrod worked on Barack Obama's successful Senate campaign and writes admiringly of the candidate who was raised by white grandparents from Kansas, which made him comfortable in white homes in conservative portions of the state. Barack was able to pick up white votes that black candidates had previously found difficult. Obama got newspaper endorsements and beat Hull for Senate. Obama was glad to to be against the 2003 Iraq war, he saw it as an easy call. As he made clear on the campaign trail (and later in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance), he is not against all wars, just "stupid ones." (Axelrod does not mention Obama's like of Reinhold Neibuhr's philosophy.) Obama was a big proponent of charter schools but opposed to vouchers.

Axelrod also joined the John Edwards presidential campaign in 2004, which he now considers a mistake. He writes of a campaign in disarray, in which Elizabeth and he clashed and she had a way of micromanaging. When things started to go badly, Axelrod was blamed and demoted. But he got to work with Obama around the same time, which he liked. Axelrod writes of Obama's preparation for the now-famous 2004 DNC keynote speech and the circumstances in which it was delivered. He writes of these moments similar to how a boxing trainer might send someone out in the ring and then assess his performance between rounds.

What is interesting is that Obama's campaign debt is what pushed him to do the book tours that made him a "celebrity." Obama recruited staffer Pete Rouse by promising that he would not run for President. But Obama disliked all of the "talk" of the Senate, he was frustrated easily by the rules and process. He hated traveling away from family on weekends, fundraising for the party, and making political stands like voting against John Roberts. According to Axelrod, Obama saw Roberts as a suitable candidate, but ended up voting against him because perhaps there was something he did not know about Roberts that would lead Roberts to vote on issues that would further disenfranchise minorities. Axelrod writes that Bush's "Hurricane Katrina moment" created an opportunity for Obama to speak about race and class divisions like few could, and that helped nudge him toward a presidential campaign.

Obama wrote his second book (which is much worse than the first) very quickly, working with staff on late-night productions to get chapters finished. His Presidential campaign didn't take shape until after he had traveled abroad and published that second book. Axelrod writes of the meeting with Barack and Michelle in which Axelrod is sure to put the cost of campaigning to them bluntly in terms of lost family time. Obama proceeds with three rules: Grass roots, no leaks or internal divisions, and let's have fun. Axelrod adds another rule-- that Obama quit smoking.

Axelrod writes that the campaign was similar to the Oceans 11 movie, recruiting the right people and doing whatever they could to raise support and unseat the larger candidates. He had originally considered sitting out the 2008 race because all the candidates had been clients of his firm at one time. Hillary, in particular, had been a donor to the cause of finding a cure for his daughter's epilepsy. He retells the story of the early dates, the gaffes, the debates, and the Iowa Caucus win that put the Clinton campaign on the defensive. Hillary built her campaign attacking the GOP and Obama wanted a different tone, more positive. The appeal of Obama, writes the author, was that he seemed to unite Americans across various lines and was different than a typical Washington candidate. Voters judged Obama by his character. Hillary was the consummate political class candidate (implications for 2016, anyone?). At one point, Hillary angrily confronted Obama privately and Obama was surprised by the "fear in her eyes" of losing the election; the Presidency was obviously something she would do anything to get. It is no secret that it was a rough campaign and that Bill Clinton would remain rather estranged from the White House until years later.

Plouffe ran the campaign, Axelrod managed the message, and Obama did his best. I noted that even Steve Jobs complained about their communications strategy. When they went to Berlin they saw what a unique opportunity they had in the world. Shortly thereafter, they settled on a VP candidate, and the author recounts the short list-- Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh. Bayh was too "flat," and Kaine was "too alike" with Obama. I did not learn much about the 2008 general election, the candidate stayed on message and things turned out like they'd thought.

Bits I learned about the first term:
There was a Somali-based threat against the inauguration that the Secret Service took seriously, and staff kept secret-- knowingly putting their own friends and family at risk in attending. According to Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel did promise Larry Summers that he would replace Bernanke as Fed Chairman, and that's what got Summers to take the ill-suited job of National Economic Council chairman. Summers was, of course, twice passed up for that position. That may have had to do with Summer's behind-the-scenes role of making sure the AIG executives got their bonuses paid, something Obama was "livid" about when he found out later. The meetings and talk of how to capitalize the banks and handle the middle of the financial crisis were interesting, but I got more from reading Timothy Geithner's memoir on this subject (and will soon read Bernanke's). Rahm Emanuel made it clear that an economic stimulus package could not have the "t-word" (ie: trillion) in it.

There is much of interest about the health care reform battle, and how that was handled. Everyone was wary about how the Clinton White House had health care reform destroyed by running it from the Executive Branch, hence the decision that the bill had to be written and handled by Congress. Nonetheless, Obama spent long hours talking to Olympia Snow and others who might vote for it. The insurance company had their own "secret seat at the table" of healthcare reform in order to get them to sign on, another reason it was left in the hands of Congress. The reader gets to relive the Scott Brown win of Teddy Kennedy's seat, the tradeoffs, and the White House's relief at the bill that eventually passed.

Perhaps the only Republican that Obama got along with was Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates reportedly said "I love working for this President" when he re-upped for another year (Gates' memoir is more even-handed on Obama). Stan McChrystal's days may have been numbered long before the fateful Rolling Stones article; Obama was angry after McChrystal's Afghan troop recommendation were leaked to the media. Axelrod writes that "soldiers are nonpartisan but the Pentagon is highly political." Everyone, including Obama, is surprised when he wins the Nobel Peace Prize, particularly ironic as it was during talks about how big the Afghan troop surge would be and the likelihood of more war. Elie Wisel apparently influenced and "sobered" Obama in college, they worked on a book together in the White House. A foreign policy victory came when Russian President Medvedev says that America was right about Iran's nuclear ambitions and supportive of curbing them. One great frustration was the BP gulf oil spill and they were perhaps too mindful of staying ahead of it in the PR department at the expense of other needs.

Despite successes, they experienced a midterm election "setback," as the Tea Party was swept to power and this created a great crisis of insecurity in the White House. Suddenly, everyone was a critic with unsolicited advice for Axelrod on communications strategy. During the first term, an unflattering piece had been written on a seemingly over-worked Axelrod and Obama expressed his personal concern. Axelrod returns to Chicago in early 2011, writing that it was all part of a pre-planned departure to get ready for the upcoming re-election campaign. Daley would take on a role as Chief of Staff in a general White House shake-up (Alter writes that Obama personally moved up the timeline to get Axelrod off the job sooner.) Axelrod whines that Reagan had Tip O'Neill who would compromise, Obama had Boehner who was keen not to, especially when feeling the heat from a now much-more-conservative GOP. But Axelrod admits that Obama did not enjoy the phone calls and glad-handing that it takes to get things done in Washington.

It did not take long for Axelrod to have some "separation anxiety" and he sounds kind of pathetic in how he misses the President. A book published with dirt from insiders during the re-election campaign angered Obama greatly. Axelrod writes that they never seriously considered swapping Clinton on the ticket for Biden, as some had suggested. He admits, however, that some polling was done and they found it did not move the needle on voters' opinions-- Biden was a lock to stay.

Alter's book makes me think Axelrod had a more high-level advisory roll in the 2012 campaign since so much of the detail of the ground game and targeted marketing is left out of this memoir. 2012 was the most high-tech campaign on record and much of that intentional strategy was left out. One pointed detail is before Obama "loses" the first debate with Romney and the criticism pours on. Obama was "grossly under-prepared" and at one point during a debate prep gives his team a sharp "you _____ are never satisfied" comment. He gets out of his slump and goes on to win the election. Axelrod seems to have personal enmity for Romney, writing a campaign story that pits the middle class against Bain Capital Management and the elites who have written off the bottom 48%.

The campaign is a bittersweet ending for Axelrod, because he enjoyed the war and the family of friends. He starts the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. He reminisces on politicians of the past, like Dan Rostenkowski, that he admired for "good" policies but were morally, internally corrupt (Rostenkowski went the prison). Obama is admirable because he maintained solid character, sometimes to a fault, and had policies that Axelrod supported. Obama comes across as centrist to a fault in this memoir. Axelrod wonders about the state of politics today, where even sharing a meal with another candidate is considered "treason" or something worse. Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to "fix broken politics," but did he? (Of course not. This is Axelrod again falling for his own marketing material.) Axelrod is concerned that hopelessly combative, divided politics is our fate.

Seeing the 2016 transition take place as I write this makes this book feel incomplete. It would be nice to have Axelrod's insights into the White House as Hillary Clinton's ship sunk could never quite pull away from Donald Trump. He was rather critical of her at times on Twitter, it would be good to have that retrospective in the book as well. I suppose an updated edition is unlikely. I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.
Profile Image for Megan McDonough.
42 reviews
June 27, 2020
This book reinvigorated my faith in the American people and the importance and worthiness of fighting our ideals. David’s unwavering commitment to the progress of our nation and the responsibility of politicians to give voice to the struggles and beliefs of the American people is truly inspiring. Reading this book in our current political reality was a truly fascinating experience - right now, it is hard to find hope. But David has given me hope again. What I believe in, and my beliefs about how to make our country better, are always worth fighting for. Politics should be about progress, about valuing the humanity of all people - not about enriching politicians or reminiscing about the past. I have always dreamed of working in public service - I have felt a calling from a young age. This book reminded me why I always felt that way, and why now, more than ever, it is so important to keep fighting the good fight. And fighting it together.
Profile Image for Pau Pereira.
7 reviews
February 11, 2020
Very interesting inside look of the Obama campaigns and his first term in office. The book is divided into three parts. It begins with a young David Axelrod (the author) working for the Chicago Tribune covering local politics. This section is dense in historical details about the Democratic political machine of mayor Richard J. Daley.
In the second section, the author, quits his job at the Tribune and starts a political consulting company. This will be interesting to political wonks who want to nerd out about what it takes to run local political campaigns.
Finally, the book delves into Axelrod's involvement in the first Obama's presidential campaign, where he was the chief political strategist, and his period as communications director during Obama's first term. It ends with the reelection campaign agains Romney.
I'm sure the author ruffled a lot of feathers with this book since he is fairly candid in sharing his opinions about his colleagues and opponents. As the reader, I found the insider's gossip very entertaining!
Profile Image for Allison Berkowitz.
432 reviews7 followers
October 28, 2020
This. Was. A. DELIGHT!

I loved the first part of the book where we learn about the author’s early life, his love of journalism, and how that informed his life in politics and translated his story-telling skills into a new realm. It was also lovely hearing how growing up in the time of JFK + MLK left him forever feeling that politics was about service. I too feel that way and find it is not nearly as prevalent an attitude as it should be. Much of the book was about the Obama campaign and presidency. This was a wild ride! You really got to “see” a side of Obama you haven’t seen before. It also did a good job of describing how difficult it is to bring good legislative ideas to fruition. Just a wonderful read!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
15 reviews8 followers
April 9, 2017
This is a strong 4-stars, and I'd likely give it 5 if it weren't about politics [which ocassionally makes this text deeply frustrating as a socially conscious citizen]. I never could've imagined enjoying a retrospective about someone's time working in politics to be so enjoyable. Axelrod can clearly write e.g.: see Obama's campaigns)—duh. What I found the most enjoyable about this book was its affirmation in positive ideology but also decision making based in critical thinking and the big picture/real human beings. Seeing one humble person start as a newspaper kid, then start a family, have one pretty sick kid, then getting into campaign consulting, and then making it to "the show"—it's a pretty wild trip. Never thought I'd actually finish this text, but hey, here we are. The audacity of hope!
Profile Image for Arlitia Jones.
136 reviews3 followers
January 22, 2018
I am a Believer. I was long before I read this book. And I will be to the end of my days, I don’t doubt. Politics are complicated and hold no promise. But once in a lifetime a leader emerges backed by the right team who goes to battle for the people. We witnessed that for 8 years. I am grateful for this book detailing the victories and pitfalls along the way. This is a look backstage at what worked and what didn’t. The voice is honest, strident, self revelatory and inspiring. I read this book as a call to action for a citizenry beleaguered by obstructionists and oligarchs to engage in the political process. Vote. Run for office. Support a candidate. Educated yourself (myself) on the history and reality of this country. I hear you, Axe.
70 reviews1 follower
June 8, 2021
I read this mostly to get my mother to stop telling me to read it; it ultimately was about what I expected — entertaining enough but simultaneously infuriating. Cool deep dives into Chicago’s electoral politics and an almost blinding optimism that made me miss the heady excitement of my days in organizing in the city, but undeniable spin (ofc, he’s a professional spin artist) and a defense of liberalism that at times made me want to roll my eyes all the way back into my head and reminded me why it’s been so hard to get myself to re-enter the field.
29 reviews
September 16, 2022
The political junky in me ate this up. This is the fifth book I’ve read that attempts to draw back the curtain on Obama-world, showing just a little bit more from another perspective. It’s fun to put the puzzle pieces together as I read from different authors. It’s also amazing to see how consistent the story is, and how decent and admirable the Obama power couple is.

It felt a little wordy at times, but I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and appreciated the vulnerability he was able to show.
174 reviews
December 5, 2018
I enjoyed Axelrod's biography, and it was good to read this given how often I listen to his podcast. I think the non-Obama stuff was the most insightful, and I enjoyed the parts about being a journalist in Chicago. Perhaps I've just read too much recently about similar subjects but this didn't totally grip me, and I would have liked a bit more detail on the nitty gritty of being a political operative. This gives highlights only.
Profile Image for Max Godin.
95 reviews1 follower
June 12, 2017
A frank and engaging book. Axelrod gives a detailed account of growing up in Chicago and a fascinating account of his time as a reporter, allowing us to understand how deep the level of corruption was within city and its politics.

It was his work with both the Obama presidential campaigns that I personally found most interesting, Axelrod was there from the very beginning with Obama, from the start of his campaign, to winning the primaries, the convention night and then election day. Throughout it all, he provides to us a descriptive account of his time working with the 44th President, the highs and lows of the campaign, the defeats, the triumphs and the final victory on November 2008, with all this, one thing comes to attention, time and time again, Axelrod truly believes in Obama and his message of change.

He also provides a detailed insight into the tactics of governing, throughout 2009 - 2011 his work in the White House helps us to fully grasp the trials and tribulations of working in Washington DC. Through sending troops home from Iraq, passing a stimulus package that would jump start the economy to healthcare reform, with the famous Obamacare, as its commonly become known as, Axelrod was at the forefront of all this and its clear that Obama might not have gotten it all done without him.

Throughout the autobiography, Axelrod comes across as frank, honest and decent person who clearly believes in Barack Obama and the good that can come from politics as a whole.
Profile Image for Callie.
647 reviews22 followers
February 24, 2015
This is an excellent book. You must know, though, that the subtitle, My Forty Years in Politics is somewhat misleading. The bulk of the book centers on the time Axelrod spent in campaigning/working for Obama, so that's less than ten years. But let's be honest: Do most of us reading this book care about what Axelrod was up to before he met Obama? I sure didn't. In fact, I didn't even bother to read the first hundred-ish pages leading up to the point where he meets Obama.

So, if you like Obama, you're going to like this book. Axelrod too comes off well, and why not, it's his own book, but what I mean by that is he seems clear eyed, level headed, and honest in his assessments of happenings. I loved the behind-the-scenes look at the campaign. I loved reliving all the moments I had seen unfold as an outsider, but now hearing about what was happening INSIDE.

Axelrod goes into great detail about the 2008 campaign and you can tell this was his favorite part to write. In fact, he probably just wanted to write about that, and the other stuff he felt he had to fill in because the book needed to be fleshed out. I fairly galloped through this thing. Sunday afternoon I probably read for 6 hours straight. It was that riveting.

The thing is, Axelrod really is a believer. You can just sense how much passion and excitement he felt getting to work for Obama, a once in a lifetime experience for him. How often do we see a politician who is actually a man of integrity, ideals, substance, intelligence. And I use 'man' on purpose, because if more women were involved in politics, I am certain our country would be in much better and more capable hands.

In truth, I don't think we're ever going to see another politician, at least in my lifetime, who is as quality as Obama. And so for me, reading this book was absolutely cathartic, because it confirmed all of the things I have felt about the president, lo, these past several years. I don't get to rave about Obama like I'd like to. I live in a state and am part of a religion that is VERY conservative, so I have to stay in the closet about my support for Obama; I can't rhapsodize about how much I like him with anyone, except maybe my husband and my kids. It's not safe for me. ;) Even if I merely mention that I voted for him to friends, relatives, fellow church members, I will get looks of suspicion and uncomfortable silences. Now if I were to also state my genuine admiration for the man, well it would be akin to my admitting I'm a fan of Old Scratch himself.

What if congress were not made up of mostly elderly white men? What if it were made up of a younger generation, and a lot more minorities, and a lot more women? Now if that was what it looked like, just think of what Obama would have been able to accomplish with their help!
Profile Image for Claire.
1,484 reviews14 followers
April 13, 2015
I decided I can't build tolerance to yet another politician yammering about his years in office, particularly if that memoir's not in Greek, Russian, Chinese or another intriguing language, especially if he bases it on something as upsetting as belief, yet doesn't clearly depict the corresponding trauma I associate with the term, and I checked the index to make sure...

I only found vagaries talking about the drive "to destroy Al-Qaeda" which I basically translate to xenophobia since Al-Qaeda is only one terrorist group when there is not only ISIS (which is in the index, okay - though the book only mentions it then focuses on A-Q) currently causing trouble but Hezbollah, the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, the Irish Republican Army, and previously the Palestinian Liberation Organization and what I'm going to be seeing a movie about next week: the Khmer Rouge. And so on and so forth...
(I was just reading off names I recognised from a list - the World Uyghur Congress sounds awfully familiar too, now that I'm thinking about it... the Uighurs up north-west! In China! But honestly I think that just being from an Uighur family doesn't automatically make you from a terrorist organisation. There is a lot of fear around that, though - somehow I had trouble returning from the PRC possibly related to proximity to these. But no, the World Uyghur Congress is not mentioned even in the part when D. Axelrod discusses Obama's trip to China. I'm just talking about my concerns which could have been addressed in this book regarding believers, though they were not.)

So though I thought I could learn better from David Axelrod of anyone about world politics, I ended up deciding his memoir didn't help me on my quest to understand the political economy or formulating strategies as much as I thought it could.

I don't have anything positive to say here, though he does discuss the democratic changes across nearly half a century, which may be a good thing.
Profile Image for Steve Peifer.
430 reviews18 followers
April 8, 2015
I can't tell if this guy is the ultimate liar or really believes this stuff.

He takes the most gratuitous shot at Mike Royko I have ever seen. So mean spirited, and isn't it sad that Royko isn't around to tear him apart. I promise you this guy would have NEVER dared to take on Royko when he was alive.

The book is mildly entertaining at the beginning, and he has crap to say about EVERYONE. Until Obama comes into his life, and the shift in tone is so drastic and so immediate that I wondered if he had employed two different editors. He does not report that the President can walk on water, but near the end of this you keep wondering if that is how he will end this book.

Instead, he has started the Institute of Politics because, get this, people need to be 'inspired' again. That this disingenuous hack can say that with a straight face after a lifetime of turning politics into the most cynical part of our country is the most nauseating thing I've read in a long time.

To those of us who believe that the election of this president was such an important turning point in our nation's history, Axelrod should be ashamed of himself for this horrible book. I'm quite confident that isn't a word he understands very well.
Profile Image for Jeff Currie.
18 reviews
December 20, 2016
A poignant read in view of the 2016 presidential election. Enlightening and disheartening too - Axelrod believes that public officials - politicians - can do good things for the public. His profession is also the one that sells candidates - good or not - to the electorate.
232 reviews
June 23, 2015
Maybe I read too many histories and not enough autobiographies, but this book is a unique portrait of a man who has lived in some interesting times. The pre-Obama sections are most fascinating in that they give a glimpse of what Chicago politics means. That being said, there are a lot of people that he does not want to offend. Obama and 2008 election were compelling. After he gets to the White House it seems that there's a lot of terrible stuff going on and a lot of Obama being AWESOME! Kind of repetitive and becomes a laundry list of Obama Administration in permanent crisis mode. Am reminded of the Onion headline, "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job."
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