THE NEW REPUBLIC: If the Obama landslide dragged Axelrod to Washington against his better judgment (his wife said he’d never forgive himself for staying put), the one judgment he never set aside was the inanity of D.C. custom. Even before Obama arrived at the White House, Axelrod had grand plans for scrambling protocol. Recent presidents had materialized at the Capitol like patriotic bunting. Axelrod imagined Obama traveling by train from Springfield, Illinois, gathering up ordinary folks along the way. “We wouldn’t just bring their concerns to Washington, we’d bring them to Washington,” says one inauguration official. Compared to the feats Team Obama had pulled off during the campaign, this one hardly rated as revolutionary. But you had to appreciate the symbolism. Lincoln took a similar journey to his first swearing-in. Besides, why give the Oval Room set its run of the inauguration? They could share it with the country.
At which point things got complicated. Logistics aides pointed out that there was no direct route from Springfield to Washington—the train would have to make long detours through Chicago and Pittsburgh. The Secret Service worried it might not be up to the task of securing nearly 1,000 miles of track, to say nothing of the frequent stops. When Axelrod and his colleagues realized the trip could take a week, even they became discouraged. “We couldn’t hold the media’s attention that long,” says the inauguration official. “CNN on the fourth day of the whistle-stop would be like, seriously?” Reluctantly, they abandoned the idea, settling on a day trip from Philadelphia instead.
It was the sort of annoyance that seemed to greet Axelrod regularly in his new hometown. His relations with Senate Democrats got off to a shaky start last year when he tried to move a weekly Senate luncheon that he was scheduled to address, prompting grumbling over breached etiquette. Since then, he’s faced off with congressional Democrats over everything from health care (Al Franken once demanded Axelrod tell him when the president would “apologize for his stupid idea” of airing negotiations on C-SPAN) to general political strategy (House Democrats complained this spring that Obama’s stump speech was killing them). There have been public spats with the business community and differences of opinion with the Obama economic team. (Axelrod once e-mailed White House economic adviser Larry Summers wondering if he’d be more comfortable in the “cafeteria at Goldman Sachs,” though several administration officials say the ribbing is good-natured—Axelrod refers to Summers as his “brother in dishevelment”—and runs in both directions.) Axelrod rents a spare, two-bedroom apartment in the Logan Circle neighborhood and sees his family in Chicago once a month. Friends routinely describe him as homesick and bone-weary. MORE