But Axelrod hesitated.
Though he was often credited with being a calming influence in the fractious world of high-stakes politics, there was one thing Axelrod held dear: the ability to tell his boss off when his boss needed telling off.
And when you’re president, Axelrod told Obama, I won’t be able to tell you off.
Obama thought about it.
Yes, you still can tell me off, Obama told Axelrod, as long as you do it in private.
Axelrod went to the White House in January 2009 and left in January 2011. And today I wonder whether there is anyone in the West Wing who has the valor and the vigor to occasionally tell the president off.
Was there anyone who said last week: “Uh, the golf thing, Mr. President? Maybe delay it a couple of days? So it doesn’t come minutes after you tell the nation how ‘heartbroken’ you are over a beheaded journalist. Maybe go hiking? Sit on a rock, commune with nature, that kind of thing?”
Instead, the president swiftly changed into his golf togs, grabbed his bag and, as one wit put it, introduced the nation to his new doctrine: “Speak softly and carry a Big Bertha.”
Even the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the slaying of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, did not keep Obama off the links. As much as the White House says the president is always connected to his job no matter where he is — which is technically true — golf is clearly a world where the president goes to clear his mind and think other thoughts.
Don Van Natta, who has written a history of presidents and golfing, wrote for ESPN The Magazine in 2012 that Obama’s wife, Michelle, “nudged him onto the links, hoping he would trade his smashmouth brand of pickup basketball for the more gentlemanly game of golf. Now Obama sees the game as his only chance to just wander around.”
But there are better times to wander than others — especially while playing a game associated with the 1 percent and not the people working two jobs to make a living wage.
Still, Obama played on. And even though he talked about Ferguson in a brief news conference, he wanted to keep it at arm’s length. “I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other,” Obama said.
So Eric Holder, his attorney general, was left to express the kind of sentiments that Obama used to express. It was Holder who went to Missouri and talked about being hassled by police as a young man and the kind of smoldering anger and mistrust that builds in black America.
“I understand that mistrust. I am the attorney general of the United States, but I am also a black man,” Holder said.
And it was Holder in 2009, in his first major speech after being confirmed, who said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as (an) ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been — and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways — essentially a nation of cowards.”
Holder called for a “national conversation” on race, not because such a conversation would be easy but because it was necessary for America’s future.
Obama wanted no part of it. In 2012 — after Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed — Obama said it is not “particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations” on race.
But how does he know? When did he try it?
There appears to be nobody working for him who both disagrees with him and is willing to tell him so. Instead, we are left with a president who seems wrapped in his aloofness as a protective blanket to keep the outside from getting in.
He may not care about the “optics” of all this. He’s got his two terms and his big legacy item, national health care.
So why should he worry? You know who should worry? Hillary Clinton should worry.
She has some of the same flaws as Obama. She can project a chilly public personality, a remoteness, a reserve and a detachment from ordinary people.
And the Republicans see their opportunity. They already have their 2016 theme:
“She may be riding high right now, but people may decide against having another four years of this kind of governing,” Paul Ryan, who was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, said recently.
His “running mate” backed him up. “Our party has to come together, or we will continue with a third term of Barack Obama,” Mitt Romney warned.
It is easier to imagine Clinton losing the presidency in 2016 than to imagine exactly whom she would lose to. The Republican field has very few candidates capable of winning a general election and a gaggle of far-right-wingers who are not.
Still, Clinton must connect with voters and sell her vision of America — which thus far she has kept largely to herself — in order to win.
And even if she does that, she is not a sure thing. If she can be labeled as Obama’s third term, she can be beaten.
That’s because I don’t think there are too many people who want an Obama third term. Not even Obama.
Roger Simon is Politico’s chief political columnist.