- Associated Press - Monday, January 31, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — David Axelrod, protector of President Obama’s message, picked the right day to show up at a news conference. His boss wasn’t just going off script. He was going off.

Humbled by a poor election for his party and sharply defensive about a tax deal with Republicans, Mr. Obama kept talking until he finally refocused on his whole purpose for being president. He spoke about the value of compromising, the merits of thinking long term, the point of leadership being to help people have better lives.

Mr. Axelrod looked up from his BlackBerry as if someone had jolted him. “That’s our guy,” Mr. Axelrod recalled thinking. “That’s the guy I’ve been working with for almost a decade now.”

Since that moment in early December, what’s happened in the White House amounts to a presidential rediscovery in the eyes of Mr. Axelrod. He considers the last two months a template for the next two years and a re-election campaign in which, he promises, Mr. Obama will try to “play big” all over the electoral map and revitalize a weakened coalition.

It all helps explain why Mr. Axelrod seems so comfortable about quitting the place.

Mr. Obama’s chief political strategist, senior adviser, close friend, late-night sounding board and comedic foil is done at the White House. This was always his plan: two years of insider work from his office near Mr. Obama’s in the West Wing, then home to family and more freedom in Chicago.

But that doesn’t lessen the sense that Mr. Obama’s world is changing significantly.

“Axe,” as he is known, has had a huge internal influence. He and press secretary Robert Gibbs, who also is leaving, were at Mr. Obama’s side daily in his campaign and have been among the most trusted keepers of a remember-what-we-promised perspective. The whirling force of Rahm Emanuel also quit the chief of staff’s job in October to run for Chicago mayor.

Axe, Gibbs and Rahm — few major conversations in or about Mr. Obama’s first two years didn’t include those words.

Mr. Axelrod hears this and responds bullishly about the new members of Mr. Obama’s team, including Chief of Staff William M. Daley, incoming press secretary Jay Carney and senior adviser David Plouffe, who replaces Mr. Axelrod. That’s not to mention the guidance of the core advisers who are staying, such as senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and communications chief Dan Pfeiffer.

“Just remember one thing,” Mr. Axelrod said about the upheaval in an interview on his final day on the job. “The heart of the Obama operation is Obama.”

And it is on that point that Mr. Axelrod is now feeling better about what he’s leaving. In his mind, the president is back in his comfort zone.

When Republicans stormed to victory in November, most notably by winning a majority in the House, the White House was reeling. The sense was that the problem went beyond the plodding recovery of the economy or the unpopular interventions by the government to help or the giant health care law that swallowed up so much time and debate.

It was that Mr. Obama the campaigner had lost his connection with the people. A White House in emergency fix-it mode got caught up in means, not ends. Less hope, more process.

That ate at message-man Mr. Axelrod, who, like Mr. Obama, can’t help but show exasperation about today’s rapid-fire news coverage and the attention paid to political winners and losers.

Story Continues →