It struck me that the most important part of Noam Scheiber’s profile of David Axelrod came pretty close to the beginning wherein Axelrod appears to possess a strong grounding in the determinants of Presidential approval:
That Axelrod would home in on this from the outset—he told the president-elect after the meeting that his numbers would be in the toilet in twelve to 18 months and “all of us who were geniuses are going to be idiots”—is a testament to his legendary fatalism.
I wouldn’t describe that insight as primarily consisting of fatalism. Rather, it seems like Axelrod understands that the president-elect’s ratings will be driven by his success at promoting economic recovery. The issue is that in December 2008, Axelrod thought the recovery moment would come sometime between December 2009 and June 2010 whereas in fact the recession has been a good deal worse than that. But later, Axelrod seems not to grasp the significance of this point:
One of the first major political questions the White House faced after the inauguration was how to handle public outrage over bonuses at bailed-out companies. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill offered an answer: a bill preventing any executive at a company on government life-support from making more than the president, or $400,000 per year. “David liked that a lot,” says a strategist close to the White House. But Obama ultimately sided with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who believed it would discourage firms from participating in programs designed to stabilize the financial system.
Now Geithner’s policy judgment may have been mistaken, but as described here we have a conflict between a political point (“people will like cracking down on high pay”) and a policy point (“we want firms in the program to promote recovery”) and the correct thing for Axelrod to recognize is that ultimately whether or not recovery is promoted will matter more politically than the political message itself.
Unfortunately, Scheiber’s article doesn’t tell us much about Axelrod’s role in other controversies related to macroeconomic policy instead moving on to health care. But in my view the political history of the Obama administration is very sharply related to the history of economic policymaking. At one point, they made an early pivot away from stimulus-rhetoric and toward austerity-rhetoric. Who was on which side there? Did anyone ever consider elevating the priority given to Fed appointments? What arguments were had about the administration’s approach to Chinese currency issues? At the end of the day, Axelrod was right the first time and if we’d spent the past 3-9 months experiencing a strong economic recovery, he’d look like a genius again today.