David Axelrod, protector of President Barack 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, sharply defensive about a tax deal with Republicans, 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.
Axelrod looked up from his BlackBerry as if someone had jolted him. "That's our guy," 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 Axelrod. He considers the last two months a template for the next two years and a re-election campaign in which, he promises, Obama will try to "play big" all over the electoral map and revitalize a weakened coalition.
It all helps explain why Axelrod seems so comfortable about quitting the place.
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 Obama's in the West Wing, then home to family and more freedom in Chicago.
But that doesn't lessen the sense that Obama's world is changing significantly.
'The heart of the Obama operation is Obama'
Axe, as he is known, has had a huge internal influence. He and press secretary Robert Gibbs, who also is leaving, were at 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 Obama's first two years didn't include those words.
Axelrod hears this and responds bullishly about the new members of Obama's team, including chief of staff Bill Daley, incoming press secretary Jay Carney and senior adviser David Plouffe, who replaces Axelrod. That's not to mention the guidance of the core advisers who are staying, like senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and communications chief Dan Pfeiffer.
"Just remember one thing," 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 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 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 Axelrod, who, like Obama, can't help but show exasperation about today's rapid-fire news coverage and the attention paid to political winners and losers.
"It was very hard to control the narrative in a way that you would like," Axelrod said. "I think we've been better at it in the last 60 days, for sure. We've learned some lessons."
That period began after the election in a wrap-up legislative session in which Obama got congressional approval for a compromise tax package, a major nuclear treaty and lifting a ban on openly gay military service. Obama took a rejuvenating break in Hawaii, approved staff changes to make his office less insular and responded to the Arizona mass shooting with a unifying speech that even his critics commended. He then gave a State of the Union address — Axelrod's final project — in which he tried to find an economic agenda for both parties.
The road ahead for Obama
Now comes the question of whether Obama can get anything done with Republicans to shrink the nation's joblessness and debt.
That's one front.
The other is the starting of Obama's re-election campaign in which the health of the economy will be paramount. Axelrod will be Obama's chief strategist in the campaign. He spoke eagerly of the chance for Obama to run against a Republican, instead of how the White House views the midterm election: Obama running against the idealized version of himself.
Yet economists say it will take years for the nation to recover from a giant recession. The question will be whether voters think progress is good enough.
"Yes, there are going to be people who are still struggling under any scenario," Axelrod said. "But the question for them will be, 'Does the alternative hold out more hope for me than the direction this president is leading?' I think we can make that case."
Heading into 2012, 'an unfathomable race'
The Obama political minds, of course, already have their minds on whom they will face.
"Probably more than any time in my lifetime, it's an unfathomable race," Axelrod said of the field of potential opponents.
To win again, Obama has ground to recover in assembling the coalition of independents, infrequent voters and other groups that rallied behind him last time. Less than two years from election day, the electoral map looks more challenging than it was in 2008.
"We're going to play big," insists Axelrod, already offering up what he called competitive poll data from Republican-leaning states like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. "The philosophy we had in the past is still our philosophy, which is play on a big field. We're certainly not going to hunker down."
Well, he will, a bit.
At age 55, Axelrod returns to Chicago, where his wife, Susan, and some symphony tickets await him. So does his reserved table at Manny's deli. He will see his children, take some time off, give speeches around the country, be a political consultant, do some writing and help shape the re-election. And he will keep advising his friend, the president, from the outside.