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Axelrod: Back home in Chicago

David Axelrod sits behind his desk his West Wing office Friday — his last full day White House.  |

David Axelrod sits behind his desk in his West Wing office Friday — his last full day in the White House. | Lynn Sweet~For the Sun-Times

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Updated: May 7, 2011 5:44AM

WASHINGTON — Wrapping up two years in the White House, David Axelrod — President Obama’s top strategist — flies back home to Chicago on Tuesday. He’ll head to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance in the evening as he spends some time “recharging” before plunging into the 2012 re-election campaign.

In the coming days Axelrod will be stopping at his beloved Manny’s Deli, see some basketball buddies, rest up at his Michigan Dunes home and take a few vacations: to Puerto Rico in mid-February and to Arizona in March, to see the Cubs and White Sox in spring training.

Before saying hello again to Chicago, Axelrod made his goodbyes here. The president and first lady Michelle invited Axelrod and his wife, Susan to dinner at the White House residence on Friday night.

“I would not be here as president if not for David,” a sentimental Obama said at a going-away party for Axelrod on Saturday night at the home of Linda Douglass, a former campaign and administration adviser. Obama recalled how he pitched Axelrod, “this famous political guru,” to take on his 2004 Illinois Senate race, though at the time the little-known state senator from Hyde Park was a long shot.

Obama said Axelrod at first — he would change his mind — advised him not to run for the Senate and aim instead some day for City Hall. “Mayor Daley will probably be retiring pretty soon; you can wait and make your mark there,” Obama said with a big grin.

On Friday afternoon, Axelrod, 55, reflected on his tenure as White House senior adviser in his office, down the hallway from Obama’s Oval Office. As I waited for Axelrod, new White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley — who replaced Rahm Emanuel when he left to run for mayor after Daley’s brother Richard decided to retire — stuck his head in for a quick hello.

One wall in Axelrod’s office reflects the early years of his career after he left the Chicago Tribune, where he was the political writer.

In 1986, Axelrod was the late Mayor Harold Washington’s media consultant for his re-election bid and an iconic campaign photograph Axelrod choreographed — of Washington in front of the Picasso statue at the Daley Center-- sits atop one of Axelrod’s walls.

Below it is a portrait of Mayor Daley by Sun-Times political cartoonist Jack Higgins. Next to that is another Higgins — featuring the late Sen. Paul Simon, the man Axelrod left the Tribune to work for.

“I’m tired. But I feel good,” Axelrod said on his last full day on the job. He said it was “kind of a bittersweet day because it has been an incredible experience. I love the people here. It is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity. But it is very much the right time for me to go, personally. And I think professionally, too.

“Working in the White House is like working in a submarine. You rarely get out, you take all your meals here. You look at the world through a periscope. I am looking forward to getting out in the real world.”

Axelrod’s standout memorable experiences: His first meeting in the Oval Office with Obama — the nation’s first African-American president — thinking of the “progress” the country has made, and standing in Moscow’s Red Square with Obama. “That was a very emotional moment for me,” said Axelrod, whose father immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe.

As the shaper of Obama’s message, Axelrod said at midterm there has been a “return to first principles. . . . If we were guilty of anything the first two years, it was we were getting so in the weeds of governance that we did not articulate consistently our principles, our values and our vision.”

He said he plans to take on some paid speaking gigs and open up a firm called Axelrod Strategies. He will rent space from the political consulting company he founded in 1985, AKPD Message and Media. (Axelrod took a $3 million buyout from AKPD, spread over five years, when he joined the White House.)

He has no plans for now to write a book. He said he is interested in creating an “Institute of Politics” in Chicago with, perhaps, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. (There is an Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School; Southern Illinois University is home to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.)

In the 2012 campaign, Axelrod will resurrect his 2008 role as chief strategist. Obama’s re-election campaign will be based in Chicago, and Axelrod said while there was some “discussion” over whether to locate the headquarters in the city again “there wasn’t much of a debate because the president landed strongly on that side of the fence.”

He added, “People who objected to the notion of the campaign being in Chicago missed the fundamental point. There is no daylight between the folks who are going out to work on the campaign and the folks here. There is one Obama family. And everybody is on the same page, so I expect there to be a real seamlessness.”

Turning to the Feb. 22 mayoral primary, I asked Axelrod if Obama was going to make an “official” endorsement for Emanuel, which at this point may be a difference without a distinction.

Obama lavished Emanuel with praise at an Oct. 1 White House ceremony; Emanuel last week started running a campaign ad featuring Obama’s remarks from that event.

“I think the president said what he is going to say, and what he said was pretty clear. His feelings about Rahm are not ambiguous,” Axelrod said.

Axelrod returns to Chicago trimmed down, shedding 25 pounds since August. He’s been working out with Obama’s trainer Cornell McClel­lan, who commutes from Chicago to Washington four days a week. He hopes to continue.

At his party, Axelrod said all the warm goodbyes have left him “verklempt.” Said Axelrod, “It’s been an incredible ride.”

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