Axelrod needed in Chicago, not in the White House

David Axelrod has proven he can sell hope, change and Barack Obama the candidate.

But on healthcare, Wall Street reform and Barack Obama the president, voters aren’t buying Axelrod’s message.

As one Democratic strategist put it: “There hasn’t been one policy sold well. Not one.”

As Obama’s “keeper of the message,” as one friend of Axelrod’s put it, the senior adviser has not been able to create the inspiring, post-partisan message for President Obama that he did for Candidate Obama.

Many Democrats who blame Axelrod and the lack of a coherent message from the White House on their party’s midterm losses are hailing his return to Chicago next year. 

They think Axelrod is more of an asset to Obama and the Democratic Party as a campaign strategist than a White House adviser. 

The president’s chief adviser and highest-ranking true believer has been in the bubble too long, Democrats say, and does not see the weaknesses in Obama that others do.

When Obama speaks, Axelrod is moved. But over the last two years, Axelrod never seemed to grasp that that’s not true for everyone.

Some say the messaging of the campaign that Axelrod has tried to bring to the White House hasn’t worked in practice. 

“Part of the problem is that there is not a good system in place to execute a short- and long-term message strategy,” said one strategist, who like other Democratic political advisers would only speak on background for this story, given Axelrod’s clout.

“In part because it seems that they have tried to implement the campaign tactics to messaging, in which you have a lot more control over the message,” the strategist continued.

“In the White House, it’s not just about having a message, it’s about the strategy to implement knowing that there are many, many voices or events that can step on or derail your message.”

Still, this strategist said Axelrod is “really critical to the reelect” and is “not solely to blame” for Obama’s woes.

Axelrod and the White House did not comment for this column.

Axelrod is headed back to Chicago to help the president win another term by leading his reelection effort. Supporters of the veteran political adviser say the move will be good both for the president and for Axelrod, who has made no secret of his lack of affection for Washington and his eagerness to go home to Chicago.

“It’s more a question of having a feel for the electorate that gets rusty working in the White House bubble than which organization he works for,” said one strategist. “Heading back to work in Chicago’s loop should help Axe reconnect with the perspective of the folks who don’t live inside Washington’s Beltway.

“His counsel should only become more valuable from spending more time next to Lake Michigan.”

Recent history shows that Axelrod is more of an asset to Obama when he is home — both in the Windy City and in a campaign setting. He helped mastermind Obama’s successful 2008 campaign, when the Democrat won states like Virginia and North Carolina that his party had been losing for decades. 

 Axelrod still has a huge fan base inside the White House and especially in the Oval Office. Friends and allies say the message-maker has been trapped by Obama’s efforts to do the right thing for the country regardless of the politics.

One friend of Axelrod’s said that he is bound by Obama’s policies, which while tough to sell are the “politics of conviction” that led Axelrod to fall for Obama in the first place.

And, with the president’s ear, he is still clearly one of the most powerful Democrats in the land.

Still, there are those who worry Axelrod might not have the same touch in 2012. Once he gets back to Chicago, Axelrod faces a fundamentally different task than he did in 2008.

“Selling hope and change, selling the promise of a candidate is different than selling the accomplishments of a president,” one strategist said.

Make no mistake: 2012 will be a referendum on Obama, and Axelrod will be tasked with doing something that polls indicate he has failed to do so far — sell Obama’s accomplishments as president.

Moving Axelrod to the campaign, some Democrats say, is just more evidence that the White House has not come to terms with the results of the midterms. 

“This is just playing musical chairs on the Titanic. This is just shuffling. Where are the new voices?” asked one Democratic strategist, who suggested taking a “flamethrower” to the White House operation.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.  Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com.

This column was updated on Nov. 20.