David Axelrod joined me this AM to discuss the very unique circumstance of a sitting president really campaigning hard:
HH: David, welcome, good morning, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
DA: Hey, good to be with you.
HH: David, I called you last night, or Tweeted you, because we have an unusual circumstance. And this is not a partisan conversation. It’s an historical one. Since World War II, there have only been four times where two term presidents have finished their term. You might consider five if you count Johnson as a two term president – 2008 with W., 2000 with William Jefferson Clinton, 1988 with Ronald Reagan, 1960 with Ike, and then 1968 with LBJ if you count that as a two termer. In each of those cases, they didn’t go on the campaign trail, I don’t think.
HH: …in the way that President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are out there. Am I right about that? This is really a unique circumstance?
DA: It is a unique circumstance, but it’s also unique that you have a president who is 1) a political asset to the nominee, and B) is fully supportive of the nominee. I mean, we’ve had cases, for example, with Eisenhower where he was famously reluctant in the case of Nixon to put his pull imprimatur on him. You remember one of the great negative ads of all time was provided by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was asked if he could name a major decision that Nixon helped him make, and he said at a press conference if you give me a week, I may think of one.
HH: And he later regretted it. He said he later regretted that, because he should have said when he had the heart attack, Dick Nixon did it exactly right. But he nevertheless stepped in it. That’s the danger of having a sitting president out there talking, isn’t it?
DA: Yeah, perhaps. You know, I mean, in the non-partisan spirit of our discussion…
DA: Just to finish, you know, George W. Bush was, he was mired in the 20s in his approval rating by the time the fall of 2008 rolled around. Bill Clinton wanted to campaign for Al Gore, and Al Gore opted not to have him campaign for him, which has been, you know, that is a hotly disputed decision, and has been since that time.
HH: Where were Clinton’s numbers, President Clinton’s numbers then, David? Were they…
DA: Oh, they were high. They were high. I mean, he left office, you know, well into the 50s. So you know, there was a view of many of his supporters that he could have been helpful. Gore wanted to separate himself, and you know, that is, there’ll be, you can find a pretty hot argument among a lot of Democrats as to whether that was a smart decision or not. And then you know, in the case of Reagan, I think, you know, he obviously spoke, but didn’t do a lot of active campaigning, but some of that had to do with, even though he was popular, there was a sense on George H.W. Bush’s part that he had to establish his own identity and his own sort of leadership bona fides. And there was also, I think, some limitation on Reagan at that point. But you were there. I mean, you would know more…
HH: Well, there was. It was a definite stand-off. And in fact, the Reaganauts were getting, you know, getting very clear messages, time you, you know, pack the desk and get ready to move the furniture, because H.W. is going to not want you people around. Dick Darmin’s coming to town.
DA: I also think in that case, Hugh, you know, when you think back, Reagan was such an enormous figure at that time, that George H.W. Bush was you know, he was sort of dwarfed in that shadow. A lot of that campaign was about establishing his own identity. There was other things around, Iran-Contra and so on, were rattling around. But I think a lot of that had to do with George H.W. Bush needing to show that he was standing on his own and so on. So I think that it is true that, and then Johnson, of course, was run out. He would have been running if he were able.
HH: That was, he was toxic, right? He was toxic.
HH: Like W. was toxic in 2008 because of a war gone bad.
DA: You know, and I think in this case, Obama is a political asset to Hillary Clinton. You know, he also now is in the low to mid 50s in his approval rating, and he’s highly popular among some key groups that she needs to mobilize here.
HH: In fact, I want to, for the audience, set up how extraordinary this is to see the President and First Lady on the campaign trail. I went back through my notes. I believe the last sitting president to actually be aggressively involved…
DA: Teddy Roosevelt, right?
HH: …is Coolidge.
DA: Oh, it’s Coolidge?
HH: I think it’s Coolidge working for Hoover.
DA: Well, I thought Cal was silent? I didn’t know that he was…
HH: (laughing) So let’s talk about what a president and especially, you know, Michelle Obama has turned out to be the secret weapon at the Democratic convention, yesterday in Arizona. She gave a barnburner.
HH: You’ve known her a long time. I actually have, I know she’s given a few political speeches. I think of her primarily as non-political.
HH: And is there a risk to her in doing this? Or is this simply a complement to what she’s done?
DA: Not in the way, I don’t think in the way that she is campaigning, you know, Hugh. You know, she’s giving speeches that are very sort of value-laden and personal and to her. I don’t think she’s hurting herself. It is, it is, to me, it’s really interesting, because you know, she was a reluctant conscript to politics. I mean, when Michelle, you know, she had her own sort of professional life, and she was very committed, as she is now, to the kids. And so there was this understanding between them before he ran for president that you know, that was his career. She would be as supportive as she could, but she wasn’t really involved. You know, she wasn’t, she didn’t campaign terribly much for him in 2004 when he ran for the Senate, for example, a campaign that I was involved in. And that was just the understanding between them. But you know, obviously when you run for president, that’s a different, it’s a different deal. So she, you know, she became, you know, she gave up a lot to help him and assist him, and then as First Lady. And, but she’s, you know, to say, people say to me all the time well, do you think she might run for office sometime? I would bet everything that I own against that prospect. She is not someone who loves politics or, at all. And I don’t think she’s really out there as a political figure. Now she’s out there because she feels passionately about the choice here.
HH: I really do not think, and there are some conservatives who believe she is political. She has been like Laura bush, very non-political. I am curious if you think she would ever accept an appointment to the Bench, because she was a pretty good lawyer before she went into the role of First Lady.
DA: She was. You know, that’s another question, but I’ve never discussed it with her. I would say no, because the fact is she was a good lawyer. I mean, you know, she went to a, I think you may have attended this place, at least as an undergraduate.
HH: Oh, no. I’m a University of Michigan lawyer.
DA: But she went to your college alma mater…
HH: Yes, she’s a Harvard lawyer.
DA: And, but she really, she hasn’t, she was less about the practice of law than about doing other kinds of work. She worked for the University of Chicago in kind of community relations work and building a community health network and things like that. So you know, I don’t, I’ve never heard her speak in that context. I honestly think she’s going to be very happy to get her life back when this is over, and to recede a little bit from the public eye, and trying to help on the issues that she cares about.
HH: David Axelrod, can you tell us, does she actually use a professional speechwriter? Or is she doing this on her own here?
DA: She has this wonderful woman named Sarah Herwitz, who was actually a speechwriter for Hillary and wrote that speech about the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling when Hillary conceded in 2008. So she’s a great speechwriter. Concession, by the way, Hugh, is what you do when the other person gets more votes than you. But anyway, we’ll move on.
HH: We’ll come back after the break. David Axelrod is my guest. If you’re enjoying this, I always love talking to him. The Axe Files, just Google it. It’s the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. David Axelrod has settled in there and does a terrific podcast, left, right and center with guests who talk to him at great length. I don’t know who he’s talking to later today, but I’ve got to come back and talk to him about how the Indians are going to dominate the Cubs in the World Series and the President on the road again. It has been since Calvin Coolidge, I think, since a sitting president hit the road with this much vigor for a successor of the same party.
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HH: Who are you talking to today, David Axelrod?
DA: I am talking to Tim Kaine.
DA: So, yeah.
HH: Oh, interesting. Perilous, perilous. You know, this is the interesting tension when a president goes on the road as President Obama and First Lady Obama does, they can make a mistake. Last night, the President riffed a little bit, and here’s what he said when he was talking about Obamacare.
BO: Now think about it. When one of these companies comes out with a new smart phone and it has a few bugs, what do they do? They fix it. They upgrade it, unless it catches fire. Then, they just pull it off the market.
HH: Now David, put aside, we’re not going to talk about the politics of Obamacare. I want to talk about, you’re a strategist. You put the President out there. The President loves to tell a joke and get a laugh line. We all do, right? But then people like me grab that audio and we run with it. So is there, is he risking something by being out there?
DA: Well, you know, I think anytime you’re president and you’re out, you’re risking something. And I, you know, I understand from a, I understand why someone like you would pick up a clip like that to launch into a discussion on that issue. But I, you know, I think that’s a small matter.
HH: Of course. It’s not going to drive any, but let me ask. If it was other than Donald Trump, if it was one of the standard issue Republican candidates who were on that debate stage, do you think he would be this actively involved in the campaign?
DA: That’s a very good question. I think he would be involved. I don’t think with the kind of vigor and vim. I mean, he, there’s no question, Hugh, that he likes Hillary Clinton, he respects Hillary Clinton, has worked very closely with her. So I don’t think there’s any ambivalence there. But he obviously has an additional incentive, because I think he feels strongly about Donald Trump. I think Donald Trump has, is someone who fires up his engines here because of his view that Donald Trump isn’t fit for the presidency. And he’s, you know, out there prosecuting that case.
HH: Last question. He’s a young man. He’s got a lot of campaigns ahead of him. George W. Bush has stayed out. Ronald Reagan stayed out. He went to the ’92 Convention before his disease settled in, and he was able to give a great speech there. And there wasn’t a question. Do you expect President Obama to return to the trail every four years, David Axelrod?
DA: Well, it’s up to those nominees, but I don’t, he’s leaving office as a popular president. And I don’t think he’s going to become less popular over time. So I think he will be asked to do it, and he’ll measure, you know, how much he can and should do. I think a lot of his efforts are going to be around his foundation, and non-profit work, and so on in the next 30 years or however many the Good Lord affords him, hopefully more. But you know, when you have an asset like that, I mean, Ronald Reagan returned and spoke at the convention again in ’92, you’ll remember, a very poignant…
HH: I saw him the week before that speech was given, and it was, something was not right at his office with Mrs. Reagan, and we were talking about the Library.
HH: But he carried off that speech amazingly well.
DA: He did. He did. And you know, were he able, I’m sure they would have employed him more. So we’ll see. It will be up not just to President Obama, but the nominee. But I suspect because he’s leaving as a popular president, he’ll be more popular over time, that there’ll be a lot of demand for it.
HH: David Axelrod, great to have you this morning. Thanks for adding some historical perspective. It really is unusual, America, going back, I think, to Coolidge to have a sitting president this active on the campaign trail. Read and listen…
DA: Hugh, how about how unusual is it to have a Cubs in the World Series, the first time since 1945? We just have to win one more game to meet your Cleveland Indians.
HH: And David, when that happens, come back, because it’s going to be very sad for Chicago, and I feel bad for you. But this is a team of destiny. The Indians are a team of destiny. It’s such a 2016 World Series if it’s the Cubs. Thank you, David Axelrod.
End of interview.