As David Axelrod puts it, he got his start in politics when a family friend took him to see John F. Kennedy speak near his home at Stuy Town in Manhattan.
“I can’t remember what he said that day. I was five years old,” Axelrod said. “But through the wonders of Google, someone sent me the speech that he made that day.”
Axelrod, who recently left the White House to work on Obama’s re-election campaign, was the first of nearly half a dozen Obama aides to address the National Action Network audience, this morning alone. (HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Lisa Jackson of the EPA were all slated to speak, in addition to Obama himself.)
“And what [President Kennedy] said was, ‘I’m not running on the platform that says if you elect me, things will be easy,'” said Axelrod, with NAN founder Al Sharpton sitting as his side. Kennedy told the group: “I don’t come here to please you, I come here to serve you. Not to please you, but to serve you.”
“Believe me, I’ve been thinking a lot about that a lot over the last couple of years,” Axelrod told the audience. “We did a lot more serving than pleasing because of the challenges that we face.”
Rescuing the economy from a “free fall” was chief among them, he said.
“If you were planning your presidency, the first three things you would do, would not be a nearly trillion-dollar recovery act, bailing out the auto industry, bailing out the financial sector. That was not in our campaign plan. That was not in our campaign plan.”
“Each of these decisions were as necessary as they were unpopular,” said Axelrod. But making it more challenging was the fact that “we had to do it virtually all alone.”
Citing an interview Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did with The New York Times, Axelrod said Republicans vowed to give the president “votes on no big things.” Echoing McConnell, Axelrod said, “We didn’t want to give him votes on big things. We wanted him to have to do it alone because then we can say he was acting on a partisan basis.”
“And, you know,” he added, “it was a diabolical strategy, but an effective one to be honest with you.”
He said independents who defected from the Democrats in 2008 to the Republicans in 2010 now have “buyer’s remorse.”
In a scrum with reporters later, Axelrod said the president was coming to Sharpton’s event because the reverend had been “a strong supporter” and “the president came for that reason.”
I asked Axelrod about a judicial race in Wisconsin that he mentioned during his speech, where an ally of Republican Governor Walker was in a deadheat with a little-known progressive candidate.
“It told me the atmosphere in Wisconsin’s changed dramatically. I would venture to say if the governor there were running today, if you re-ran the same race you ran in November he would lose, and not by a few votes,” said Axelrod.
“I think independent voters have seen enough to know that they’re uncomfortable. I think Democratic voters are mobilized and I think that’s a microcosm of what is happening in many places around the country,” he said.