By Inji Kim
On Jan. 31, the Drew Forum hosted David Axelrod, the campaign strategist and former senior advisor to Barack Obama, who is currently the senior political commentator for CNN and runs the Institute of Politics at University of Chicago. The talk was sold out with a crowd of 400 people, including students, faculty and locals, getting the opportunity to hear from Axelrod followed by a time for questions in the Concert Hall. Axelrod discussed memorable moments from his career and explored his personal history, ultimately underlining the danger of cynicism to democracy and the importance of preserving it.
Axelrod pinpointed the exact moment where his interest and passion towards politics began: “I actually grew up in New York City where people have been opinionated for a long time,” he said in an interview with The Drew Acorn before his talk. At the Forum, he continued the story by sharing the time when he saw John F. Kennedy campaigning in his hometown. He explained that he carried a passion for political engagement, thereby making a career of promoting political solutions for a better future for the American public and supporting the leaders who he thinks will bring those solutions. This was especially visible when he discussed the details of passing the Affordable Care Act with President Obama. When the act was passed, Axelrod personally thanked the president on the behalf of families going through medical procedures. The moment was special to Axelrod and his family because his daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy and went through the same struggles that many American families go through when seeking insurance with a pre-existing condition. The President replied to Axelrod saying that’s why “we do the work,” a moment that reinforced Obama was a leader he wanted to work with.
Axelrod also shared the story of when he met Obama for the first time in 1992 and how he was able to see the young politician’s willingness to make a difference in the community from this first meeting. When asked about the importance of students and the younger generation expressing their political views, Axelrod said he is “inspired every day by the young people who I come into contact with who want to have a positive impact on the world around them.” Axelrod still actively engages with students by running the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics where he hosts different speakers and programs for students. “You can’t help but be more optimistic about the future when you spend time with such young people. So I feel really grateful to have the opportunity to do that,” said Axelrod.
Drew University students expressed their deep appreciation for the opportunity to speak with a figure with such experience and a strong message. Engy Gad (‘18) said that she especially appreciated hearing anecdotes from the Obama office. In addition to his story about the Affordable Care Act, Axelrod also told the story about when the famous slogan, “Yes, we can!” was decided on, which Axelrod actually wrote for a campaign commercial. President Obama was questioning whether or not the phrase was too corny, but when Michelle Obama gave her opinion that she thought the phrase was fine, he immediately listened to her input and filmed their campaign video.
“At its most basic level, that story is of a man asking for his wife’s opinion,” said Gad about the story. She continued, saying, “A lot of times we think of presidents [in terms of] policy and media coverage, but humanizing stories like these remind me that democracy is indeed government by the people.” Gad explained that this concept makes getting involved in government more palatable and feasible to her. Olivia Sznaza (‘19), a political science student, said, “David Axelrod’s forum speech was refreshing and welcoming to all walks of life.”
In his podcast series, Axelrod hosts a variety of guests, offering them a chance to give the public a deeper basis of knowledge of who they are on a more personal level. “My feeling is that it’s harder to hate people if you know them. You may disagree with them just as evenly, but it’s hard to hate people if you know them,” said Axelrod. Sznaza responded to Axelrod’s remark, saying that he brought a “message that broke partisan boundaries and poked fun at both sides of the aisle.”
Throughout his interview and his forum talk, Axelrod repeatedly brought his focus back to the importance of political engagement and his hope of preserving democracy in this country.