Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Axelrod reflects on health care reform, answers students' questions

La Follette School Director and Professor Susan Webb Yackee chats with David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. La Follette School Director and Professor Susan Webb Yackee chats with David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

Obama adviser Axelrod emphasizes public service

Throughout his opening remarks and answers to student questions, David Axelrod spoke passionately about revitalizing democracy in the United States.

“That’s why I was so happy to get this invitation,” said Axelrod, who is founding director of the University of Chicago’s non-partisan Institute of Politics. “You wouldn’t be in this program if you weren’t thinking about the opportunities that public service can afford. We need you now more than ever.”

U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, a member of the La Follette School’s Board of Visitors, helped secure the invitation-only visit with Axelrod, who was in Madison for the Cap Times’ 2018 Idea Fest.

Axelrod said Sen. Kohl was an old friend with whom he interacted frequently during President Obama’s administration. “He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t in it for the attention, he was in it for Wisconsin,” Axelrod said of Kohl, who represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2013.

Former Wisconsin Gov. and Attorney General Jim Doyle and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Maraniss of The Washington Post accompanied Axelrod during his visit with the students. Axelrod described Doyle as “a force for good for a very long time in Wisconsin and around the country,” and said Maraniss, who was born and raised in Madison, was “one of the truly great political journalists of our time.”

Axelrod began his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, leaving after eight years to join Paul Simon’s campaign for U.S. Senate as communications director in 1985. He started a political consulting firm in 1987, working on numerous successful campaigns, including the re-election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

“Democracy is a project, and it requires our full participation – even at the elemental level of citizenship,” Axelrod told the La Follette School students. “Before you finish this program and before you go on to your assignments wherever you take the education and training that you are getting, please exercise that and help us revitalize our democracy.”

David Axelrod shared his deeply personal connection with health care reform during a 90-minute conversation with La Follette School students September 28. As a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, Axelrod understood the political risks of the issue and was deeply conflicted about it.

“Seven presidents had tried to tackle this health reform issue, seven presidents had failed, and some of them had suffered greatly politically for it,” Axelrod told 38 master's degree students. “We were in the midst of the great recession, and I was worried about what the political impact of taking this on would be.”

At the same time, Axelrod knew first-hand the fear of going bankrupt because of medical bills. Axelrod was a young reporter when his daughter started having epileptic seizures at seven months old. His family was paying thousands of dollars a month to try to keep their baby alive.

“We had insurance, but I learned what so many people learn from these family crises – that my insurance didn’t cover a lot of what she needed, particularly her medications,” he said.

Axelrod gave Obama his political advice, to which Obama replied: “That’s all good, but what are we supposed to do, put our approval rating on the shelf and admire it for 8 years or are we supposed to draw down on it to try and do things that are important to the country?”

As he did throughout his comments, Axelrod injected a little humor. “Of course, I loved that,” he said. “I always say that I like him so much because he listened to me so little.”

The president’s approval ratings continued to fall, and Axelrod shared the data with Obama. “I wasn’t trying to get him to stop,” Axelrod said. “I wanted him to know where we were.”

However, Obama had just returned from Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he met a 36-year-old woman with stage 4 breast cancer. She was married, had two children, and had health insurance. “She’s terrified that she’s going to die and leave her family bankrupt,” Axelrod recalled Obama telling him.

“I could feel him pushing me … he was tired of the conversation,” Axelrod said. “He said, ‘that’s not the country we believe in’.”

Months later, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and Axelrod’s emotions poured out.

“I went into my office … and I closed the door and I broke down and I sobbed,” he said. “As I thought about it, the thing that gripped me was thinking about my own family’s experience and how difficult it was and the notion that we were able to do something that might spare other families the kind of ordeal that we went through.”

Axelrod returned to the Roosevelt Room, where President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and others who had worked on the ACA were gathered. He thanked Obama on behalf of all those families who wouldn’t have to go through what his family did.

“He just put his hand on my shoulder … and said, ‘that’s why we do the work’,” Axelrod recalled. “That was the single most crystalizing experience that I’ve had in my professional life.”