The pepperoni and cheese pizzas had been delivered, and a meeting about how to sell President Obama’s economic plan was set to begin — not at the White House, but a few blocks away in the seventh-floor apartment of David Axelrod.
Mr. Axelrod took a seat in his living room, with the Washington Monument visible in the distance, and asked how the president’s proposals were being received in the country. He went around the room, calling on a cluster of strategists who were on hand to discuss the latest batch of polls and focus groups conducted for the White House.
It is known as the Wednesday Night Meeting, an invitation-only session for a handful of advisers, nearly all of whom played a key role in paving Mr. Obama’s path to the Oval Office. The location varies, but on a recent evening Mr. Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, was feeling under the weather, so a group that he says is “like family to me” met at his place.
“It helps clarify my thinking to talk to people who I have faith in,” Mr. Axelrod said, reluctantly describing the weekly meetings he had hoped to keep under wraps so he would not suddenly be overrun by requests from people hoping to dispense advice.
The two-hour sessions are just one way in which Mr. Axelrod is making the transition from Chicago political consultant to the White House. His title does little to capture his full importance to Mr. Obama. His voice, and political advice, carry more weight than most anyone else’s on the president’s payroll.
The question for someone with the access and authority that Mr. Axelrod enjoys in the White House is how he exerts his influence with the president, the White House staff, Congress and other constituencies.
The circle around Mr. Obama has grown exponentially since he arrived in the White House. An army of new assistants, deputies and advisers surrounds him, but it is Mr. Axelrod who sits the closest to the Oval Office. His proximity is a symbol, in a unique West Wing kind of way, of how close he remains to Mr. Obama.
“I get to see him when I need to see him,” Mr. Axelrod, 54, said in an interview in his office, which is slightly larger than a service elevator. “It turns out he has a few things on his plate, so I try not to abuse that privilege.”
Gone are the leather jacket and wrinkled plaid shirts he wore during the campaign. He has four new suits — and an array of neckties — for his new position. The wardrobe caught the president’s eye at a recent White House dinner for the nation’s governors.
“Everybody looks extraordinary,” Mr. Obama said. “Even Axelrod has cleaned up pretty well.”
Mr. Axelrod has played a major role in framing the message of the domestic agenda, from the economic stimulus plan to health care. He has devoted far less time to foreign policy, given the amount of time the president spends dealing with the nation’s fiscal crisis.
A glimpse of Mr. Axelrod’s day offers a look at how he spends his time.
He arrives at the White House shortly after 7 a.m., a torturously early hour for a man known during the campaign for sending messages until the small hours of the morning. A cup of Earl Grey tea is waiting for him — he hates the taste of coffee and recalls having only two cups in his life — as he walks into his first appointment of the day, a meeting in the office of Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, who has been a friend for 25 years.
He attends the economic briefing in the Oval Office, where the latest news and grim statistics are relayed to the president by a battery of advisers. When the classified intelligence briefing begins, Mr. Axelrod leaves the room. Later, he and a speechwriter sit down with Mr. Obama to review the three-ring binder containing each speech or statement the president will make that day.
Often in the late afternoons, he walks to the Situation Room to attend some meetings of the National Security Council, stopping to grab a handful or two of the M&Ms that are in a large bowl outside the room.
He also helps decide which fights to pick and which ones to avoid, making him a leading voice in setting the political tone in Washington. The recent back-and-forth with Rush Limbaugh, for example, was explicitly authorized by Mr. Axelrod, who told aides that it was not a moment to sit quietly after Mr. Limbaugh said he hoped that Mr. Obama would “fail.”
Mr. Axelrod’s background has been rooted almost entirely in politics. Strong similarities exist between his trajectory and that of Karl Rove, a friend and longtime counselor to former President George W. Bush. Both Mr. Rove and Mr. Axelrod forged partnerships with their clients long before they began campaigning for the presidency, guided them through elective office and, ultimately, to the White House.
Mr. Axelrod rejects the comparison, saying that he is more of a protector of Mr. Obama’s image and message than a policy maker or strategist intent on remaking the country’s political DNA, as Mr. Rove often talked about. The two men have never met, but in his new role as commentator, Mr. Rove has criticized Mr. Axelrod as politicizing the White House.
“He’s in the fomenting commentary business,” Mr. Axelrod said recently over brunch. “I’m not sitting here moving pieces around from the White House. I’m not trying to run the Democratic Party. I’m not trying to supplant the brilliant policy makers who are here.”
But the Wednesday night meetings suggest that the strong belief in polling and focus groups from the campaign are alive in the White House. Joel Benenson, a pollster for Mr. Obama, is among the participants in the sessions. He said that Mr. Axelrod often asked one question above all: “How do we make sure that the arguments from the president’s agenda are made in the most persuasive way?”
Mr. Axelrod has never worked in government, and the adjustment has been abrupt. (“Look, they made me a bureaucrat,” he told one of his first visitors to his transition office, a government badge hanging from his neck.)
He refers to his new job in the parlance of his long-ago career as a newspaper reporter: he is “on assignment in Washington.” His wife visits a few times a month, and he tries to return to Chicago just as often.
“It’s surreal, so much of this is,” Mr. Axelrod said. “It is an incredible privilege to be here, but it’s kind of hard to absorb and get your hands around all we’re trying to do.”
His imprint is felt across Washington and the Democratic establishment in the country. He works at explaining Mr. Obama’s proposals on taxes, health care or the economy, no matter if his platform is a senators-only luncheon or a television talk show.
“It’s very important to have someone there to understand why Barack Obama ran for president,” said David Plouffe, the campaign manager, who remains a close political adviser to Mr. Obama and a participant at the Wednesday meetings.
There are few words that come across the president’s lips that have not been blessed by Mr. Axelrod. He reviews every speech, studies every major policy position and works with Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, to prepare responses to the crisis of the day.
The gold-colored sofa in his office is often a bullpen for brainstorming new speeches, with the writers surrounded by two walls of campaign photos and a large picture of Manny’s, his favorite Chicago deli.
Jon Favreau, the president’s chief speechwriter, said there was a familiar refrain during these meetings, with Mr. Axelrod urging the team not to become consumed by the insularity of Washington. “Can I speak on behalf of the American people here?” he said Mr. Axelrod often asks aloud.
That is precisely why, Mr. Axelrod said, he convened the Wednesday Night Meetings: to take the pulse of what people were thinking. Locked in the White House all day, he added, he can no longer hear those voices on his own.
Intellectually, I know that Jeff Zeleney keeps writing these fluff pieces because he wants Axelrod to be his "inside source" in the administration for the next 4 to 8 years, but I kind of hope he just writes them because he ships Obama/Axelrod really hard.