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Q&A with David Axelrod, President Obama's departing senior advisor

David Axelrod talks about his successes and regrets in the White House and his return to the role of senior strategist in Obama?s reelection campaign.

January 30, 2011|By Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A changing of the senior guard takes place Monday at the White House as a new management team takes over and David Axelrod, President Obama's confidant and longtime political strategist, returns home to Chicago.

Axelrod's next assignment is to crank up Obama's reelection operation, which will be run from their shared hometown -- and, significantly, outside the Washington Beltway. The Obama team thinks that will reduce Washington's influence on campaign decisions and focus the operation on voters' values. It also reduces the appearance that politics and policy are merging in the West Wing.

Before starting, Axelrod, 55, plans to take a few months to travel, relax and reconnect with friends and neighbors -- a recuperation after two years of campaigning and two years in the White House.

His pictures were still on his office wall over the weekend, but he was making way for his replacement, his former business partner, David Plouffe, who will take over the office closest to the Oval Office in the coming week.

Gone were the dark circles under Axelrod's eyes and the husky, overtired whisper, both common during his two years in the White House.

Your office is right next to the Oval Office. You step in there multiple times in a day. Will you be as influential from 700 miles away?

My experience in this business is that sometimes you're even more appreciated when you're not around all the time. And the truth is that I hope to bring something that I can't bring right now when I return, which is insights you glean from regular people.... Our relationship is long enough and deep enough that I have no concern about whether I'll have influence.

As you look back over the last two years, what do you count as your biggest success?

In 2008, there was this chilling admission that we could be going into a Great Depression. I saw over the next period of months a series of decisions to avert what could have been a much greater recession.... History will look back at what was done during that period as really significant and important.

You played a big role in passing "Obamacare."

I come at the healthcare law from a very personal place, because I have a daughter with a chronic disease. I was a young reporter at the [Chicago] Tribune when she started seizing, when she was 7 months old. We were in an HMO. They didn't cover her drugs, which were running $8,000 to $10,000 a year. They were talking about brain surgery. I was making $42,000 a year. We almost went broke?. The night that the [healthcare] bill passed, the president was in there with the staff watching the vote, and I slipped out and came in here and closed the door. I was overcome.

Where did you fail personally?

My biggest regret is that, because we were this triage unit dealing with this great crisis, there wasn't a lot of time to focus on the larger narrative. Part of the obligation of the president is to continually project forward and remind people of those fundamental principles and values, and the vision that you're driving toward. Nobody does that better than Barack Obama, but we didn't always give him the chance to do that during the first two years. I think we lost that thread a little bit. We were too prosaic at times. There were a lot of days when we asked him to go out and do fairly prosaic things at times, and we sort of squandered the platform. I regret that.

Are you taking that on yourself?

I'm happy to. That's what you get for the privilege of sitting a few feet away from the president.

You've said that the president's speech in Tucson Jan. 12 following the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords reminded you of the "race speech" [known to many as "the Rev. Jeremiah Wright speech," delivered in 2008 and covering race relations in the U.S.].

I had no doubt he would meet that moment. I knew how deeply he felt. I sent him a piece over the weekend about this young girl, 9-year-old Christina [Christina-Taylor Green, who was killed in the Jan. 8 shooting]. I had been reading it to my wife and I couldn't even get through it. He called me and said, "I want to call the family. But she's about the same age as Sasha. If it were Sasha, I would be disconsolate; I wouldn't be able to talk to anybody." [When Obama did speak with her parents] they said, "You know, it was your campaign that got her interested in politics." So when he said in that speech, "We need to live up to her expectations," he felt that very personally. Just as in the race speech, he felt it in his heart; he knew exactly what he wanted to say. He said he'd have something at 10 or 11; I knew that wouldn't be the case.... I went to bed, woke up at 2 or 3. He'd sent it at 1:30. I read it in the dark on my BlackBerry. I said, "This is exactly what needs to be said."

I don't know anybody else like that, who can take a moment like that, that is a painful tragic moment, and find some meaning in it. And then articulate it so beautifully.

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