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A Political Strategist’s Homecoming

April 16, 2013

The transformation of race relations in the past 50 years has changed the dynamic of presidential elections, according to David Axelrod, AB ’76, the campaign strategist and former senior advisor to president Barack Obama.

When President Clinton was elected in 1992, 87 percent of voters were non-Hispanic white, Axelrod said during the Chicago Booth Black Alumni Association’s Sixth Annual Luncheon and Third Annual Black History Month Awards Program at Chicago’s Union League Club on February 26. In Obama’s reelection in 2012, just 72 percent of voters fit that profile, he said. “It’s changing rapidly,” Axelrod said. “This is one of the factors that Mitt Romney and the Republican campaign missed.” 

After advising Obama on his final election campaign, Axelrod is shifting his attention to training the next generation of political leaders as he heads the recently established Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago

The Chicago Booth Black Alumni Association (CBAA), formed in 2004, invited Axelrod because of his longtime track record in successfully advising African American political leaders, his involvement in President Obama’s successful political career, and his connection and involvement with the University, said Peter W. Washington, ’09, chairman of the group’s membership committee and co-chair of the luncheon. “It’s important for the Chicago Booth community to understand what Axelrod is doing at the Institute of Politics and understand ways for the Booth community to collaborate,” Washington said.

Axelrod told the group that his introduction to Obama came in 1992, when a political friend called him and said, “You should meet Barack Obama. He could be the first African American elected president of the United States.” Axelrod joked, “As you can imagine, I take (her) to the track with me whenever I go.”

Axelrod did not become involved in an Obama campaign until 2002, when, after losing a run for Congress in 2000, Obama vowed to win his next race or retire from politics, Axelrod said. “We were both at a crossroads in our careers,” he said. “I was becoming very distressed about the level of cynicism in politics, the types of tactics that winning campaigns demanded.”

After he won a US Senate seat in 2004, the “odyssey” of a run for president slowly unfolded, Axelrod said. “I always remember one exchange,” he said. “Michelle said to Barack, ‘What can you bring to this that nobody else can do?’” Axelrod recalled. “He said, ‘Well, there are a lot of ways to answer that. But the simplest way I can say it is that I think the day I take that oath of office, the world will look at us differently as a country and there are a lot of kids in this country who will look at themselves and their prospects differently.’ I think that is exactly what has happened. He has created a new world of possibility for so many young people.”

That result is why Axelrod chose to head the Institute of Politics, he said. “I’ve run my last campaign because I can’t possibly have a more rewarding relationship than the one I’ve had with the president,” Axelrod said.

“The best contribution that I can make is to encourage young people to get into politics,” he added. “I think this is the most public-spirited generation we’ve seen since the 1960s, but there is real cynicism as to whether politics is the way to effect change. I always tell them, ‘You can either get in there and try to change things for the better or you can live with the consequences of decisions that young people are going to live with more readily than anybody else.’”Phil Rockrohr