The Election's Other Big Winner: David Axelrod

President Obama's chief political strategist details what he was most afraid of--and Romney's mistakes.

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David Axelrod is the hottest political consultant in the land right now, and he's using his new perch to set the stage for President Obama's second term.

Obama's chief strategist says Obama is ready to compromise, and he is urging congressional Republicans to also make major accommodations on the budget to avoid automatic tax hikes and deep spending cuts set to phase in starting January 1. Axelrod's words carry special weight because he was one of the big winners in Tuesday's election as Obama's campaign leader, a role he also played in 2008.

He told CBS News that he is heartened that House Speaker John Boehner doesn't "want to foreclose discussions and that was a positive sign." Obama is scheduled to meet with Boehner and other congressional leaders later this week to discuss the legislative agenda.

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Referring to exit polls taken on Election Day, Axelrod said, "I think it was somewhere around 60 percent of the American people agreed with the president's position on this issue of taxes" — to raise them on the wealthy and maintain tax cuts for the middle class.

In this Oct. 21, 2008, file photo Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama holds a basketball as he talks to his chief strategist David Axelrod, backstage before an economic summit in Lake Worth, Fla.
In this Oct. 21, 2008, file photo Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama holds a basketball as he talks to his chief strategist David Axelrod, backstage before an economic summit in Lake Worth, Fla.

Axelrod is also starting to go public with his analysis of the matchup between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. He says two mistakes by Romney stand out, and they serve as cautionary notes for future campaigns:

The first was the leak of an audio tape in which Romney told a private fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans are overly dependent on government and they support Obama because he provides so many giveaways; Romney added that he felt no obligation to court them.

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Axelrod told Politico: "I think that the greatest gift we got may have been that 47 percent tape ... When you're running for president, you have to have dimensionality. People need to see you as a real life and blood person, and they need to understand who you are. One of the reasons why the president won is people know who he is. They think, whether they like him, whether they agree with him or not, that he's a genuine person, and people understand who he is. By not fleshing Romney out, those guys gave us a chance to do it ourselves, and in a way that was much less helpful to them."

Axelrod suggested that Romney seemed to be hiding his true convictions, which seemed to come out in the "secret" tape recording, and this reinforced an image of the GOP candidate as an uncaring plutocrat.

Axelrod added: "I also think that they paid a very high price for the nomination. ... The decision to go so far right on immigration, the decision to go so far right on women's issues, had real consequences — those consequences you can see in the exit polling," which showed that Hispanics and women supported Obama.

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"Our biggest fear, frankly, was that in January, February, and March, when we didn't yet have the resources to put up air defenses, that the super PACs would just come boring in and define this race in ways that we couldn't have recovered from," Axelrod continued. "And I'll never understand why they hung onto their money until after the Republican candidate was chosen."

But Axelrod was gracious in assessing Romney's campaign team.

"Let me say there are a lot of smart guys over there, and gals," he said. "You don't get to this level without being very successful and very smart, and I'm always mindful of 'there but for the grace of God.' We've all lost, and you know the Axelrod dictum is, 'You're never as smart as you look when you're winning. You're never as dumb as you look when you lose.' So I respect them and I think that they're really smart and able people."

Axelrod served as a senior White House adviser at the start of Obama's first term. He returned to Chicago, his hometown, which also was the site of Obama's campaign headquarters, to help run the campaign.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and on Facebook or Twitter.