BATAVIA – With flashes of wry humor, David Axelrod, a veteran of American politics and Chicago journalism, spoke to a packed auditorium at Aurora University on Feb. 9.
The former chief strategist and senior adviser to President Barack Obama surveyed "From Obama to Trump: American Politics Today" in an armchair exchange with questions posed by Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune, where Axelrod covered politics before entering the political arena. They were introduced by former State Rep. Tom Cross (R-Oswego). Axelrod is the author of a best-selling memoir, "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics."
Axelrod, whose father was a refugee from Eastern Europe, said he has been enthusiastic about democracy since he was a little boy reading words by President John F. Kennedy. He would go on to hand out leaflets for Robert Kennedy, and later left journalism to manage a campaign for Illinois' late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon.
"He was one of the most honorable human beings, who I knew would make me proud," Axelrod said.
Axelrod's many campaign trails led to Obama, and he said he was impressed by the stance against the Iraq war expressed in a 2002 speech Obama wrote.
Axelrod said Obama spoke against a war of undetermined losses, length and cost, that would unleash sectarian war in Iraq, and make America a focal point for terrorism.
On a lighter subject, Axelrod said when "Yes we can" was suggested as a slogan for Obama's presidential bid, the candidate feared it was a corny phrase. Axelrod said Michelle Obama weighed in: "Not corny."
"[Obama] recognizes talent and harmonized people very well," Axelrod said, adding that a time of crisis forges a sense of camaraderie.
In the weeks before taking his first presidential oath of office, he was dealing with an economy in free fall, and the threat that banking would collapse and add trillions to the debt.
He remembers Obama's quip: "Is it too late to ask for a recount?"
He also recalled the kindness shown to him and his wife by First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1999, when she was asked to speak at the epilepsy foundation the Axelrod family had recently started. Clinton, on her own before the speaking engagement, chose to spend a day at a clinic talking to doctors and patients to gain a fuller understanding of the disease facing the Axelrods' daughter, going on to help promote a national effort to find a cure.
Looking at the last presidential election, Axelrod said Clinton became an avatar for the establishment versus Donald Trump.
He described Trump as "an improvisational figure."
"It's hard to operate in [the White House] that way," Axelrod said of Trump.
He said one of Trump's heroes was Flo Ziegfeld, a Broadway impresario and tremendous promoter.
"In his mind, the president is always producing a show," Axelrod said, noting that his approval rating among supporters will hold if he delivers on the promised bounty of jobs in the middle of the country, and health care at lower prices.
He said Obama was known for deliberativeness, lack of impulsivity and nuance. Typical of election cycles, voters opted for the antithesis.
"What worries me is a sense of cynicism sowed about … government, business, labor, media – all pillars of our democracy," Axelrod said, citing the term fake news. "The free press is so central to the inception of our republic. [We need] free media to keep watch over the country."
Axelrod is the director of the University of Chicago's nonpartisan Institute of Politics; senior political commentator for CNN; and host of "The Axe Files" podcast.