Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
David Axelrod has written a paean to his favorite politician, Barack Obama. The book is also a memoir of a gifted political insider. Although the title, Believer, would imply that Axelrod has some “higher” motivation underpinning his career as a political strategist, he hasn’t always found the most worthy role models for whom to apply his skills; at one time he conducted the election campaigns of the notorious Rod Blagojevich, the former (and currently imprisoned) governor of Illinois, known for mediocrity as well as for a tendency toward graft.
Nonetheless, Axelrod contends that in Barack Obama he found a worthy focus for his efforts, believing Obama’s objectives to be praiseworthy. Axelrod began working with Obama in 2002, and quickly became Obama’s éminence grise, the principal architect of the strategies that helped Obama get elected first to the U.S. Senate, and then twice to the nation’s highest office, despite the fact that Obama had very little prior experience that prepared him for the work ahead. Axelrod hoped in part that he would feel energized and inspired by Obama’s optimism and idealism; after working in Chicago politics for so long, Axelrod felt cynical.
Unfortunately, once Obama got into office, it seemed as if the Republications were determined to defeat every initiative of Obama’s no matter its merits. But beyond reproaching the Republicans and pointing out that Obama inherited major problems when he took over the Oval Office, Axelrod doesn’t offer much analysis about what happened to most of the hopes that were more characteristic of the confident candidate than the oft-stymied President.
About half of the book is devoted to Axelrod’s personal history, which is also interesting, especially for a look at the path one might take to become an important counselor to the movers and shakers of the world. Axelrod studied politics at the University of Chicago, and then wrote a political column for the Chicago Tribune. But he realized he didn’t want just to write about the political process; he wanted to be a part of it.
He founded a political consulting firm, and got the job of running the re-election campaign of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. The expertise he gained in building cross-racial coalitions would eventually lead to his successful campaign management of the nation’s first black president. And it is that story, more than just Axelrod’s own, that is the most compelling.
Evaluation: Axelrod seems affable, unaffected, and still wide-eyed, in spite of his fear of having been made jaded by Chicago politics. He isn’t totally uncritical of Obama, but is definitely supportive of him and what he tried to accomplish. Most importantly, Axelrod has been an insider during a pivotal moment in American history, and thus has a very engaging story to tell.
As a side note, Axelrod continues to push for higher ends through the nonpartisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago that he founded in 2012. His stated mission is “to ignite in young people a passion for politics and public service.” We have attended a number of his programs [most of them being open to the public], in which prominent speakers discuss current events and political life, generally in an interactive format. It is truly inspirational to observe the idealism and enthusiasm with which participants engage in the exchange of ideas. Axelrod is continuing to make a difference, and is providing many others with opportunities to learn to make a difference as well.
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
The narration is done by the author, who is a decent reader. It’s nice to listen to an author read his or her own book as long as the narration is capable, and Axelrod certainly is.
Published unabridged on 15 CDs (19 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Group, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015