Charlie Rose Talks to David Axelrod

Obama’s former top adviser discusses the president’s path to the White House and the leading contenders for 2016.
Photographer: William B. Plowman/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images

In David Gergen’s review of your book, Believer, he asks if Obama would be president without you.

The truth is, I’m not sure either of us would have gone forward in politics but for the fact that we came together at an existential moment in both our careers. He had lost a race for Congress and was making a decision about one more campaign. If he’d lost it, he’d told Michelle, “That’s it. I’ll be out of politics.” This was around his Senate race in 2004. Field of seven, and he was not at all a front-runner. I told my wife, Susan, that if I could help Barack become a United States senator, that would be something I’d be proud of for the rest of my life. So I shunned some more lucrative offers and went to work for him.

 You knew him before 2004. Did you see presidential potential right away?

I met Barack in 1992 when a friend of mine, Bettylu Saltzman, called me and said, “I just met the most remarkable young man. I think he could be the first African American president.” He’d just returned from law school. So I had lunch with him. I remember very clearly how impressive he was. I didn’t walk away humming Hail to the Chief, but here was a guy who had been editor of the Harvard Law Review, could have written his ticket at any law firm, been set for life. Instead, he came back to Chicago to run a voter registration drive.

 How did he wind up giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention?

Well, it wasn’t an immaculate conception, I must say. We did campaign for that. We let it be known that we were interested in it. John Kerry had come [to Illinois] shortly after the Senate primary that Obama won. And Obama spoke at an event and got a huge response. Kerry filed that away and was prone to accept our petition to give this speech. We were driving around southern Illinois one day in the spring, and we got a call from Mary Beth Cahill, who was Kerry’s manager. She said to Obama, “We want you to give the keynote speech.” What I remember about it is him hanging up and saying, “I know what I want to say,” instantly.

 Was there anything Obama would have liked you to change in your book?

I wrote about the first [presidential] debate [in 2012], the famous debate in Denver that was a disaster for us. It was a disaster because he didn’t engage in many ways. And he pointed out, “You should have put in that book that you guys told me not to engage.” And there’s some truth to that, because he’d had some really bitter exchanges with John Kerry [role-playing as Mitt Romney] in our debate prep. We were concerned that he was going to come out and be kind of ornery and nasty to Romney. And we said, “You know, don’t engage.” So he was quite right about that. I actually had that in some earlier drafts. It dropped out.

 Talk to me about Hillary and 2016.

Remember, I worked for her once. She’s a friend of mine, and I’ve known her for a long time. The Hillary Clinton of 2007 was a cautious, guarded, kind of cloistered front-runner. The Hillary Clinton of 2008, after she lost the Iowa caucuses, was a visceral, connected person who was close to the ground, spoke to the struggles of people. If she’s that person in 2016, I think she’s going to do very well.

 Suppose Jeb Bush gets the nod and his party is united behind him. What then?

I’ve said consistently that if he gets the nomination, without subverting his view on issues like immigration reform, he could be a formidable candidate for the obvious reason: All of a sudden, states like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida, with large Hispanic populations—and he’s got a great kinship with the Hispanic community—are in play.

 What’s your assessment of Obama since the midterms?

Since the midterm election, I see a guy who seems reborn. There’s a new bounce in his step. He’s very focused and enthusiastic, exhilarated by the things he was able to do right after the election: the deal with China on climate change, immigration reform, reaching out to Cuba.

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