On June 5, University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts hosted a live episode of “Thank You for Your Service” (TYFYS), an exploration of American civil-military relations. The podcast featured David Axelrod, UChicago Institute of Politics director and former campaign strategist and advisor to President Barack Obama. Axelrod was interviewed by TYFYS co-hosts and University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy first-years Thomas Krasnican and Nick Paraiso, and Harris Public Policy students were encouraged to ask questions at the end of the interview.

They discussed Axelrod’s experiences campaigning with and serving as senior advisor to President Obama during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During his first campaign with Obama in 2008, Axelrod said, “Obama was the candidate of change in a country that was hungry for it… The majority of Americans had come to believe the war was a mistake.” Axelrod noted that although Obama was aware of the threat of terrorism and the need for troops in Afghanistan, “He was deeply critical of the war in Iraq… He feared a war of undetermined cause, length, and consequences would make America a greater target for terrorism. All of those things turned out to be true.”

To provide some context, Axelrod said, “Obama came into office during a recession — the worst since the Great Depression — as well as two wars… We needed to come up with a strategy to remove troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

They essentially created a timeline to remove troops from both countries, and adhered closely to that timeline. This, he mentioned, was no easy task. “The president has to sell policies to the American people… His job is to synthesize and make the best decision for the country and gauge what the American people feel about these issues.”

One student mentioned that one of the biggest areas of liberal criticism of Obama was his use of drone strikes. On this subject, Axelrod said, “There’s no question that the protection of the American troops was a factor in the president’s decision-making.”

When asked to discuss his experiences working with military officials as National Security Advisor, Axelrod said, “I had no doubt about their commitment to protect us, to protect our country… I was impressed by the level of thought, competence, and commitment.”

One student asked how, with no military background, Axelrod closed the expertise gap as National Security Advisor. “Thankfully, in the White House, you have access to the foremost experts in the world. I didn’t know anything about deep sea oil leaks, and now I know more about them than I ever thought I would… every single day you’re confronted with things that you never would have expected.”

In addition to the enriching learning experience, Axelrod also witnessed some historic moments. He described the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as “One of the most moving days in the Pentagon. Obama felt strongly that people who wanted to serve our country should not be excluded on that basis… Many members of the LGBT community were represented in that room.  When Obama walked into that auditorium, there was this massive ovation. It was moving for me to see that moment.”

During his second campaign with Obama, social media played an important role. By using data obtained from social media, “We could learn extraordinary amounts of information about individual voters: which voters were accessible, which things would be interesting to them, where to find them. We’re in a different era, but the goal is still the same: to reach individual voters.”

Axelrod left his role as advisor after the second campaign, but he took some important things away from his experience. “My ride with Obama and the re-affirmation of idealism was very important for me. I got to work with young people, and I saw bright, motivated young people who were skeptical, but not cynical, and who understood their role in a democracy. I knew I was done with campaigns, but I wasn’t done working with young people.” And, as many Harris student have seen, Axelrod continues this commitment through his work at the UChicago Institute of Politics.