Members of the Obama reelection staff relaxing with a game of table tennis last week.
Members of the Obama reelection staff relaxing with a game of table tennis last week. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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CHICAGO - A young Democrat campaign worker recently decided to have a laugh at the expense of Mitt Romney, Barack Obama's likely rival in the November Presidential race. He pinned some signs to an elevator in his campaign team's central Chicago skyscraper, saying "Cadillac 1," "Cadillac 2" and "Jeep" - a reference to a speech delivered by the Republican front-runner in Detroit, in which he listed the vehicles he owns. Last Thursday marked a year since the opening of the staff's spacious Democrat headquarters.

Long rows of desks and hundreds of computers fill this vast auditorium, although there has been an effort to make the place more comfortable and people-friendly for the hundreds of campaign workers. There are separate teams working on the budget, graphics, video and other technologies. The buzz of campaign workers discussing matters is accompanied by the sound of a Ping-Pong ball bouncing on a table decorated with the message "Obama 2012."

The windows feature breathtaking views of the skyline, and include a view of Grant Park - the venue where Obama gave his victory speech in 2008. But supposing the campaign workers manage to integrate some Ping-Pong play into their daily work routines to clear their minds a bit, it is doubtful that they'll have much time to admire the view. The campaign is already picking up steam, with 212 days to Presidential elections on November 6.

The establishment of the campaign headquarters so far from Washington, D.C., is an unusual step for an incumbent, and Obama visits the staff in Chicago infrequently. But David Axelrod, who left his office in the White House a year ago to manage media affairs for Obama's campaign, thinks the Illinois base is logical.

"I actually think it makes great sense," says the 57-year-old political consultant and strategist. "Washington is a giant echo chamber in which the conventional wisdom bounces around, and you can't escape it. Wherever you go, it's a one industry town. I don't believe we would have won in the first place in 2008 if we had been in Washington, because we would have been bombarded with all of this conventional wisdom that said we couldn't win, and that challenged some of the positions we were taking. When I found these young people working here - splendid, bright, motivated - their minds are not cluttered with this conventional wisdom of the day."

What's harder to sell to the public: a young senator whom nobody knows, or an incumbent President who presides over a stagnant economy?

"In retrospect, the victory in 2008 looks much easier than it was. It was very challenging. But there is no doubt that being an incumbent president in a time of tremendous challenge for the country is difficult. You hear the Republican mantra, that, well, he hasn't solved the mess we made, therefore he should be replaced. We've confronted a hostile opposition that was committed from the very beginning to resist cooperation. On the other hand, we have a president who, like the American people, has shown great determination and steadiness in the midst of a very difficult time."

“The reality of American politics is that we are a closely divided country. We had a very good run in 2008, and Barack's victory was considered a tremendous one, yet we got only 53% and 47% voted for McCain, and it was under optimal circumstances. We were always preparing for a close race, in politics you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I confess I've been surprised by some of the stuff I've seen on the other side, and the Republican Party has done tremendous damage to itself in the process. Governor Romney's approval ratings have declined dramatically over the course of this race, because he's tacked so far to the right - and the party itself went so far to the right they a lot of moderate voters. A lot of women and voters in the Latino community are disturbed by what they've seen. It's not due to what we've done to them in the offensive basis, but mostly what they've done to themselves.”

Mentioning minority communities - with yesterday's survey, I guess you are not worried about the Jewish community support. 

"I am pleased, but we are going to remain vigilant and make the case to the voters in the Jewish community just as any other community. I think the President's strong record on Israel got more attention lately, but this community has deep values and I think the President is very consistent with these values - education, women’s rights. I consider myself a representative of many Jewish voters, my father was an immigrant who fled the pogroms from Bessarabia. I've been to Israel 6 times, I grew up in a Jewish home, when my grandfather went to Israel for the first time - it was a hugely emotional moment. But most Jewish Americans are concerned with broader issues -Israel is not the only issue. We want a strong Israel and strong America, and we want an America that reflects our best values".

President Obama's rivals celebrated with his hot-mic remarks with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking about "more flexibility" after the reelection. What can we actually expect should he get a second term, including Israel policy? Will pressure be renewed after the reelection?

"The notion of Mitt Romney accusing anyone else of inconsistency is laughable and hardly warrants a response. Romney, following the incident, identified Russia as our major geopolitical threat, which was the most interesting thing about that. As with so many other things, he's mired in the past conception of the world. His economic theory is a concept of the past, social issues, and the notion that employers should have the right to decide whether women get contraceptives. He watches "Mad Men" and thinks it's the evening news. He's mired in a whole other generation. As for the President's positions - I know him well, I've known him for 20 years. I've never met a more consistent person in my life, in his views, in his temperament. The President in my experience and my discussions with him has never wavered in his concern for Israel, Israel's security and Israel's ability to sustain itself as a Jewish state, as a democracy.

Along with the possibility of the President’s reelection, do you see the possibility for the Democrats keeping control of the Senate and taking back the House of Representatives?

"I think that we are going to win, because the President is right about where he wants to lead the country, primarily with economic understanding of what a strong America is. I believe Republicans in the House have created a very bad situation for themselves because they've been so intractable and so ideological, and so partisan that the American people have become really disenchanted. They've got some of the worst polling numbers of any Congress in some time. Back in the 60-s, the Republican Party went through periods like this, and they had the far right Barry Goldwater to run for President. Mitt Romney's father ran against him, representing modern Republicanism. The irony of the current race is that Mitt Romney is running for President on Barry Goldwater's platform."

Why didn't the party change the ticket, with some speculating that Obama-Clinton would be the dream ticket?

"I think people underestimate how close President Obama and Vice-President Biden are. Vice President Biden has performed very important and difficult assignments - the Recovery Act, he managed our situation in Iraq, he negotiated with the Congress at the end of the lame duck session in 2010 - the vice–president served this president well.”

- If the healthcare reform gets hit in the summer by the Supreme Court, what impact it will have on the campaign?

"I don't think anybody knows what the Supreme Court will do or what the political impact of any decision will be. One thing I do know - if they were to invalidate the law, a lot of Americans would suffer - millions of young people under the age of 26 who are now covered by their parents insurance will be disenfranchised. We are going to have tens of millions of Americans with preexisting medical conditions who get treatment today - won't be getting preventive care, including most senior citizens. Ultimately, if it's thrown out, people with preexisting medical conditions won't be able to access insurance with prices they can afford - they will be refused coverage. It could be a profound loss for the American people, and that is not speculation, this is a fact".

Talking about organization - President Obama once criticized super-PACs, and now you are using one as the Republicans pump more money into theirs "to fight the Obama machine."

“We don't have the oil industry pumping millions of dollars into super-PACs for us, financial industries are not pouring money into super-PACs for us. This, plainly is going to be a factor in this campaign".

- Any high-tech surprises to expect this time?

"We challenged ourselves to use every vehicle at our disposal to communicate with voters. Twitter back in 2008 was in its infancy. Now look how dominant it is in the debate. I believe that in terms of organizing we are well ahead of the Republicans. Even in their primary races, they principally rely on negative TV ads to beat each other up, and that's been their primary means of communication. I haven't seen them build an organization in these states. This is not only an issue of technology - in 2008, we were able to leave an organization in each state that became very important in the general election. The Republicans don't believe in recycling over there."

In 2008, you've helped to crystallize the concept that Americans want change. What do they want now?

"Change had a lot of forms to it - ending the war in Iraq was one of them. On economics, the President talked wherever he went about the challenges facing the middle class in this country, that's a long term change. The change we need is to rebuild an economy in which the middle class is growing, not shrinking, in which hard work is rewarded, and everybody from Main Street to Wall Street plays by the same rules. That's a fundamentally different view from what the folks on the other side have. They honestly believe that if we go for cutting taxes for the very wealthy, and allow Wall Street to make its own rules, the country will prosper and in order to do that, we need to cut education, cut research and development, cut investments in renewable energy, in infrastructure. That's just a different view of how we build economy meant to last.”

Where do you personally prefer to be - at the White House, or the current work with the campaign headquarters? 

"I loved my two years at the West Wing, but that is such an intense environment, and I was away from home, my family stayed here in Chicago. Chicago is a great town and I am happy to be home."