By Anna Gombert
David Axelrod is an optimist.
The political strategist who helped elect America’s first black president is not despairing as Donald Trump tries his best to dismantle Barack Obama’s legacy.
“This is a great country. This country is not going to be defined by one politician, even a president,” Axelrod said Wednesday at the Drew Forum lecture series at Drew University in Madison.
The reality TV star occupying the White House is providing a valuable reality check for America, according to Axelrod, 62, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and host of The Axe Files podcast for CNN.
“The question about who Donald Trump is has been asked and answered. The question is, who are we? And what is the character that we want to give our country?”
Axelrod took exception to the President’s economic claims in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, asserting Trump owes much credit for the nation’s prosperity to his predecessor. But that’s just politics.
“The thing that I can’t abide is the casual degradation of democratic institutions,” Axelrod said.
He pinpoints his passion for politics to Oct. 27, 1960, when, as a 5-year-old, he saw candidate John F. Kennedy speak at a campaign stop in New York.
Decades later, he was similarly inspired by Obama.
“If I could help Barack get elected to the U.S. Senate, that would be something I could be proud of for the rest of my life,” he remembers telling his wife.
Axelrod went on to serve as chief strategist and senior adviser to President Obama. Why? The world of politics is divided into two cohorts, Axelrod explained.
“The larger one is people who run for public office because they want to be something. And then there is the smaller, more admirable group that runs for public office because they want to do something.”
Obama was in the latter cohort, he said.
The Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—has special resonance for Axelrod. His daughter suffered from epileptic seizures for the first 18 years of her life, and medical expenses nearly bankrupted his family when he worked as a Chicago Tribune reporter.
When the act finally passed, Axelrod thanked the President on behalf of families like his.
“That’s why we do the work,” Obama replied.
And that’s why Axelrod is not despairing.
“All these years later, I’m still a believer,” he said. “And you’re not going to persuade me not to be.”
Next up for the Drew Forum: Former NBA Commissioner David Stern, on Feb. 28, 2018, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden on March 28.
Anna Gombert, Drew University Class of ’20, is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Drew Acorn.