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From White House Adviser To Podcaster: David Axelrod On 'The Axe Files'


And now we're going to hear from a rising young start in political podcasting.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And now, from the University of Chicago, Institute of Politics,

"The Axe Files" with your host, David Axelrod.

DAVID AXELROD: I'm going to say something that I know won't poll well. I love politics, and I love politicians. I've been hanging with them all my life.

SIEGEL: That's David Axelrod, who's also Miles Davis. Axelrod was campaign strategist and White House adviser to President Obama and now, as part of his role as director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, he's become a podcaster. He's done all this, by the way, at the tender age of 61. David Axelrod, welcome to the program, and happy birthday.

AXELROD: Thank you so much - great to celebrate it with you.

SIEGEL: You've interviewed politicians, pollsters, consultants, journalists. Have you returned to your roots in journalism?

AXELROD: Yes, in a way, I have. You know, all my life, I've been involved in conversations with people in politics and public life, and they've always been really interesting to me. And this whole podcast world gives me a chance to have these conversations and share them with other people. So it's - it is an extension of both my careers. I think life is about having a lot of chapters, and this is another chapter, and I'm really enjoying it.

SIEGEL: Are there things that you learned from people or heard from people that have been real eye-openers to you?

AXELROD: Well, the nice thing about the podcasts is that they are conversations and not interviews, and people to be a little bit more revealing of themselves. I talked to Mitt Romney about the fact that his father was a boyhood hero of mine. He was a guy who fought for civil rights and against the hard right in his own party, was very outspoken, including about things like the Vietnam War - cost him his chance to be president of the United States. I asked Mitt Romney what he learned about that from that, and he basically said, I learned to be cautious about what I say.

And in fact, that caution may be what ultimately cost Mitt Romney the chance to go beyond where he got. And he got pretty far. So that was interesting. I asked Bernie Sanders on the gun issue if he had still lived in Brooklyn where he came from, as you can tell by his accent, would he have the same position on guns that he'd had. And he said probably not. So every conversation has revelatory moments that I really enjoy.

SIEGEL: You're a Democrat. I'd like to ask you about the state of the Document race - the presidential race this year.


SIEGEL: Is it all over but the shouting right now?

AXELROD: I think that Hillary Clinton is in a very strong position. Bernie Sanders has run a much stronger campaign than anybody anticipated, and he's formed very, very well. But structurally, this thing is set up in a way that favors her. And she - the thing that I observed about Hillary Clinton in 2008 was after she lost the Iowa caucuses, she became a much, much better candidate. She became less defended, much more connecting with people, revealing more of herself and connecting more with their lives. I began to see more of that Hillary Clinton in the week before the Nevada caucuses. So she's very competitive, and she tends to force herself to meet the challenge.

SIEGEL: If you were running a Democratic campaign, which of the top Republicans in this race would you be most concerned about running against? Which one would you be most eager to run against?

AXELROD: Well, you know, a lot of that has to get thrown out the window because I, like a lot of other geniuses, thought Donald Trump would be back on "Apprentice" by now. I think on paper, Rubio would be the most formidable candidate, but the thing, Robert, is that you can see a lot of guys who - and gals - who get elected president on paper. And then when they get into the arena, it becomes a lot more difficult. So I think, you know, Rubio and others who are moving up and are in the finals, as it were, are going to be challenged in ways they've never been challenged before, and no one knows how they'll perform.


We've heard a lot of talk this year about the ceiling. You know, does Trump have a ceiling over him? He may do well in the 30s, but so many people don't like him that he couldn't poll more than - whatever - 35, 40 percent. Do you buy the ceiling, or is the ceiling kind of a retractable dome that you can, you know, you can open up at some point?

SIEGEL: of the people don't like him and he can pull more than whatever 3540%. To buy the ceiling here is the ceiling kind of a retractable dome that you can open up its own --

AXELROD: Well, that remains to be seen. I think there is a ceiling somewhere. We just don't know exactly where it is. He is widely unpopular among Democrats and independents who vote in general elections. But as long as the Republican primary field is fractured, 35 to 40 percent is a pretty formidable number. So you know, for Trump, the more the merrier, and we'll see how long that lasts.

SIEGEL: David Axelrod, thanks a lot for talking with us.

AXELROD: All right, Robert - great to be with you.

SIEGEL: That's David Axelrod, formerly political consultant, now director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics and also host of the podcast "The Axe Files," which has just launched a partnership with CNN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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