News & Views from 465 California Street

Political Wonks, Policy Gurus

Clint Reilly

When President John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he appointed his campaign manager Lawrence O’Brien as United States Postmaster General.

It was customary to give the impression that political operatives were not making policy in the White House, so O’Brien was given a safe job running the postal service. Franklin Roosevelt gave his chief political adviser Jim Farley the same low profile job in the 1930’s.

But there is no such church-state line between politics and policy today. In today’s world of 24-hour news cycles and rapid-fire pundits, political capital must be carefully husbanded to successfully implement controversial policies. Leaders want their political consultants closer than ever.

In fact, our last two presidents have entered the White House with their campaign gurus – Karl Rove and David Axelrod – right by their side.

During George W. Bush’s first term, Rove’s influence on policy decisions was readily apparent. Nearly a year before war with Iraq was a foregone conclusion among the general public, Rove was known to tell people, “Let me put it this way: If you want to see Baghdad, you’d better visit soon.”

Democrats fumed at the intermingling of politics and policy, as did Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell. At one point, Powell even warned the White House that he didn’t expect to receive, and wouldn’t accept, phone calls from Rove. But for good or ill, Powell gravely underestimated Rove’s influence, not just on political strategy but also on critical public policy decisions.

Rove’s official duties during the first Bush term were confined to managing the White House political operation. Yet it was an open secret that he participated in policy meetings on matters as diverse as the Iraq War and domestic spying on potential terrorist suspects.

During Bush’s second term, Rove was elevated to Deputy Chief of Staff with significant policy responsibilities. He had come a long way from his days as a direct mail specialist back in Texas.

Besides Barack Obama himself, David Axelrod was more responsible for Obama’s election to the presidency than anyone. As Obama’s chief strategist, the Chicago political consultant orchestrated one of the greatest campaigns in the history of American politics.

Now Axelrod is working in the White House as senior counselor to the president. He is a regular guest on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week with George Stephanopoulos, speaking for the president on matters of policy as diverse as Israel, the economic meltdown, the bail out of the banking system, Treasury Secretary’s Geithner’s competence, terrorism and more.

Axelrod’s seamless move from professional political strategist to policy right arm is as if über-consultant James Carville suddenly morphed into policy wonk Leon Panetta.

Two points about leadership are critical: First, effective policies have the power to change history. The New Deal kept Democrats in control of the country for most of the 20th century.

Second, presidents today conduct an ongoing conversation with the American people that lasts throughout their presidency. When voters stop listening, it becomes impossible to lead. Monitoring the content and the tone of that conversation is the precise reason why Bush and Obama brought their consultants right into the Oval Office.

When I was a political consultant, the San Francisco Examiner often took umbrage that I was active not just in political campaigns but also in helping my clients deliver on their promises after they were elected.

Poor Jim Finefrock – the former Examiner editorial page editor – could not contain his outrage when I was seen in the mayor’s office weighing-in on matters of public policy. This was the subject of more than one adverse editorial penned against me by the now retired Mr. Finefrock.

The world has changed, Jim.

Axelrod and Rove may be the first modern-day political consultants to smoothly transition into prominent policy roles at the White House. But they won’t be the last.

Comments (2)

  • Well…my sense is that President Bush, the younger, did not “conduct an ongoing conversation with the American people” that lasted throughout his presidency. If he did, it was one-way and thus not really a conversation at all. Voters stopped listening, but not soon enough.

    Now…instead of trying to sucknose around the issue, why don’t you simply state that political consultants like to stay employed at the highest levels possible, just like everyone else?

    Posted by: Doc | May 6th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

  • Point well made Clint. Axelrod has the talent, common sense and understanding of the modern world to do the job very well. He fully understands the boundaries of policy and politics.

    The past mention of your role in SF politics leads me to say that your clients should have listened more.

    Posted by: Walter McCaffrey | May 6th, 2009 at 2:58 pm

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