President Obama can take a political punch much better now than he could in the early days of his campaign, David Axelrod said Friday.

Axelrod, the departed White House senior aide who's expected to play a key role in Obama's reelection campaign, said that the president takes the heat much better now.

"He could not have survived what was the most competitive presidential race in modern times had he not developed that," Axelrod said on MSNBC of Obama's thick skin.

That wasn't always the case, the departed administration aide noted.

Axelrod wrote a memo to Obama when he was considering running for president expressing concern about whether the then-senator could weather the election imbroglios that pop up on the campaign trail.

"You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty," Axelrod wrote at the time.

But Axelrod said that Obama not only learned how to roll with the punches, he's gotten better at it.

"It turns out he took them really well. And when you're president, that process continues," Axelrod explained.

Obama will need to make use of that thick skin again over the next two years, as the 2012 campaign gets under way and as the Republicans who want his job sharpen their rhetoric against him. The White House is also managing the president a bit more carefully than it had during his first two years in office; though he has a press conference scheduled for Friday, Axelrod acknowledged that the administration sometimes "overused" the president publicly.

As for those Republicans who might challenge Obama, Axelrod called all of them "formidable candidates," though he followed in the footsteps of the president by seeking to kill with kindness two of the potential candidates.

Axelrod praised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's (R) healthcare reforms during his time as governor, calling them a model for the Obama administration's own reform efforts.

"That work inspired our own healthcare. I think it's been a great boon. And he ought to be proud of it, he ought to embrace it, and one day I'm sure he will," Axelrod said.

He also praised Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, a former GOP governor of Utah considering running for president, for supporting the administration's agenda — both foreign and domestic.

"He was very encouraging about what the president was doing, both foreign and domestic," Axelrod said, adding a jab at Huntsman, saying maybe the ambassador has rethought his support.