David Axelrod on Obama's Presidential Style

The president’s top political strategist on the burdens of the office, his critics, and race.

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Video: Inside Obama's Inner Circle

Ferocious opposition from congressional Republicans won't deter President Obama from pursuing his ambitious agenda, nor will his adversaries' vitriol darken his sunny disposition. That's the word from David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser and Obama's chief strategist in last year's campaign.

"He likes the job," Axelrod says in a recent interview. "It's a relentless and difficult job, but it's the work he signed up for." Axelrod, who shares Obama's Chicago background and his steady, unemotional approach, adds: "Look, when he was thinking about running for president, I told him, 'I'm not sure you're pathologically driven enough to run for president,' and he said, 'Well, that may be.' But he said, 'If you believe in public service and you want to make a difference, there's no better place to be, and that's motivation enough for me.' And I think he enjoys grappling with these very big, complicated problems. He enjoys taking on problems that touch people's lives—and helping. He enjoys the idea that we have a chance to make a big contribution here. Anyone who sits in that chair knows the weight of the job, and the weight is heavier today than it's probably been in generations, but he handles it very well."

Obama doesn't complain about the burdens of his office, as some of his predecessors have done. Harry Truman, for example, called the White House "the great white jail." John F. Kennedy conceded that the job was a lot tougher than he had expected. Thomas Jefferson described the presidency as "a place of splendid misery."

Last spring, as he moved to end the economic downturn, Obama was briefed about an entirely different threat—the H1N1 flu. Afterward, he joked to an aide, "That's all we need—a pandemic." It was typical of Obama's dry wit and realism, based on the understanding that a president has to play the cards he's dealt.

And the problems keep coming. The latest involves Afghanistan, with Americans divided on whether to pull back or escalate. Obama is also under pressure to modify the healthcare legislation recently approved by the House and to slow down his push for more government activism and vast levels of federal spending. But Axelrod says the opposition is inconsistent and wrongheaded: "I am amused by the cacophony out there among our critics who purport to be on the same side of the argument, because some call us revolutionary and socialist and say we are working fast to make insidious changes in our cherished way of life, and others say he hasn't accomplished a thing! You've got to kind of pick your horse and ride it. You can't ride both. I mean, I think the truth is that he is bringing just the change that he promised and the American people asked for and the kind of change that we need to undergird our country for the 21st century."

How does Obama cope with the GOP's overwhelming opposition? By not taking it personally, his aides explain. "Every president has virulent opponents, and we have ours," Axelrod says. "But every poll I've seen suggests that even among those who don't support necessarily his policies, there is a warm feeling."

Referring to Obama's critics, Axelrod says, "What I love about these guys is that they were the architects of a disastrous economic policy and basically crashed the economy, and now comes this new president, and the economy is in a ditch. He's worked mightily to drag the economy out of that ditch, and he's made some progress. They sit on the side of the road on their hands critiquing how he's getting the car out of the hole rather than jumping in and helping him push. I think the American people understand that."

One development that has pleased Obama and his aides is how the race issue has apparently faded. When asked whether people see Obama as "a black president" or simply as "the president," Axelrod said race isn't uppermost in their minds. "I think we largely overcame that in the campaign," he observed. "I think it was a noteworthy historic fact when he took office because a barrier had fallen, but I don't think people judge him in that way at all. I think there's a level of familiarity with him that allows folks to judge him as a person and not on the basis of race or any other externality."