5th Annual Culver Lecture Welcomes Former Obama Senior Advisor


by Tessa Lengeling, News Editor

At five years old, a young David Axelrod watched a presidential candidate speak to a crowd of desperate and excited voters. This candidate was future president John F. Kennedy. He made a campaign stop at the housing development Axelrod lived in in New York. Axelrod was at the age where he didn’t fully understand what was happening, but can still remember the feeling surrounding him that day.

“While I don’t remember every aspect, I remember the scene and how riveted people were on him and how important it all seemed, and that was the beginning for me,” Axelrod said. 

Axelrod is best known for being President Barack Obama’s senior advisor and strategist who led Obama’s historic campaign in 2008, as well as his reelection in 2012. He is now director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, his alma mater. His book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, was published February of this year. 

This book was distributed to the large crowd at the 5th Annual Culver Lecture hosted by the John C. Culver Public Policy Center at Simpson College on April 14, 2015. Simpson students, faculty and Indianola community members attended the lecture to hear what Axelrod had to say about his time with Obama and his outlook on Democratic politics in the future. 

Axelrod was integral to the Obama campaign in both elections as well as an influential part in the problem solving of challenges the administration faced. During his speech, Axelrod spoke about his experience with Obama, saying he started to become cynical in 2002 after working in Chicago politics when an unsuspecting Obama called him to ask for help in running for the U.S. Senate. Axelrod could not pass on the opportunity and learned a lot about the soon-to-be first black president on this campaign.

Throughout his speech, he described instances where he learned who this Barack Obama really was. In 2005, the Obama team was serious about not running for president, but as time went on, the topic became serious and it was evident a decision needed to be made. 

“There were eight people in the room when Barack decided to run for president, and two of those people were Barack and Michelle,” Axelrod said. 

Axelrod is a trusted mind in politics today and was asked many questions about the upcoming 2016 election while at Simpson, as the presidential candidates begin to formally announce. 

“I think she (Hillary) has to treat the election as if she is a challenger, not a front-runner,” Axelrod said. “She has to be aggressive, ask people for their vote and earn their vote. I think she recognizes that she has an encouraging start from that perspective because she’s building her campaign form the bottom up, not the top down.” 

He explained how voter turnout in presidential years is substantially higher than midterm elections. The past midterm election in 2014 showed an inconsistent message from Democrats, causing them to lose many Congressional seats.

“There is a third less people who participate in elections in the off years and they tend to be more Democrats than Republicans,” he said. “Beyond that, it is always easier when you have a candidate or a standard behind the message, and I don’t think there will be any lack of clarity about what the Democratic message is in 2016 because the nominee will define it.”

Social media and new methods of reaching, especially young, voters was a large influence in Obama’s successful elections. Looking forward, campaigns will have to find new ways for outreach.

“The nature of technology is that it advances very rapidly,” Axelrod said. “What we did in 2008 would not have been adequate in 2012 and what we did in 2012 will be passé in some ways in 2016. 

Looking to 2016 again, Axelrod weighed in on the variety of candidates already in the race.

 “It’s been true in the past that the Republican establishment ultimately gets their man, it’s always been a man, it’s not 100 percent the case in 2016,” he said. “There is a grassroots Republican populist vote out there that, combined with social conservatives, can make a lot of noise.”

Axelrod left Simpson students with a call to action for the upcoming political season. 

“My advice for a young person is, if you want to be involved in politics, get involved in politics,” he said. “Find a candidate you care about, find a cause you care about and volunteer. Work and learn and grow, and as you do you’ll be noticed and you’ll get other opportunities.”