Opinion

The New Republic: David Axelrod, West Wing Skeptic

David Axelrod speaks to a guest at a White House event.

David Axelrod speaks to a guest at a White House event. Axelrod is often seen as the White House skeptic, willing to disagree with other presidential advisers. Joshua Roberts/Pool/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Joshua Roberts/Pool/Getty Images

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.

If you've read any of my reporting on President Obama's campaign to pass health care reform, then you know that David Axelrod frequently played the role of West Wing skeptic. Armed with poll numbers showing that middle-class Americans really didn't care much about expanding health insurance coverage, he repeatedly warned Obama that he pursued comprehensive reform at his own peril.

Obama heard the advice and ignored it. And, as Noam Scheiber notes in his profile of Axelrod, that wasn't an isolated incident. On issues ranging from budget earmarks to the Wall Street bailout, Axelrod made the political case for going in one direction — only to see Obama go in the other.

Whether Obama made the right decisions in those cases depends on your perspective. Personally, I'm glad Obama pursued health care reform, despite the polling numbers. At the same time, I wish he had heeded Axelrod's advice about coming down harder on bank executives.  But I think it speaks well of Obama that, as a general rule, he's shown such a proclivity for doing what he thinks is right rather than what he thinks will impress the voters.

But let me back to Axelrod for one more second. Noam raises another point that I've mentioned before but feel is worth some emphasis, particularly now. Axelrod may have been wary of health care reform, because of its political downside. But that was his job: To provide the president with a clear, accurate picture of public opinion. To sugar-coat the numbers and suggest health care would be anything but difficult would have amounted to political malpractice.

More important, on the substantive question of whether health care reform was the right thing to do, Axelrod never needed convincing. And that's in part because the issue was intensely personal for him:

Last spring, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel began pursuing a series of deals with interest groups — insurers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, hospitals — to grease the passage of health care. When Axelrod eventually turned to the issue, he became frustrated. The deals Emanuel was negotiating were moving the legislation forward. But they risked provoking a public backlash. “During the campaign we fought against insurance companies,” Axelrod said in discussions with Emanuel and the president. “After the deals with insurance companies, the deals with Pharma — all these people are supposedly our friends.”

It’s possible that Axelrod was speaking strictly in his role as a communications adviser. Certainly no strategist would relish explaining how “changing Washington” had given way to co-opting special interests. But there appears to have been a deeper revulsion at work. For one thing, Axelrod had been fighting the health care-industrial complex since his Tribune days, when his daughter’s medical bills consumed a quarter of his salary. And while he craved the end result of health care reform, the process had a way of mocking his principles. “David has a very idealistic streak,” says one official. “He does not see politics as the art of the transaction. He sees it much more in a human context, that people are motivated by a connection to something bigger than themselves. That view is just very different from passing legislation like health care, where you have to cut deals.”

The fact that Axelrod can identify so closely with the concerns of middle-class Americans makes him a particularly valuable asset in a White House that, quite frankly, could use a bit more raw populism in its economic policy. If indeed he leaves next year, I hope the president replaces him with somebody equally attuned to what non-wealthy people think.

By the way, this seems like a good time to recommend Noam's profile if you haven't read it yet. Noam is a friend, so perhaps I'm biased, but I think it's one of the best pieces of political journalism that I've read in a very long time.

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