MADISON, WI — David Axelrod stood outside the large white press tent in the blocked-off streets below the Wisconsin State Capitol building, surrounded by a half dozen reporters and flanked by his two close friends, David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs.
Axe, the 57-year-old chief strategist of the president’s campaign, admitted under questioning that he and Plouffe were, yes, wearing matching 2008 Obama campaign fleeces.
Axe also noted that Gibbs, dressed in jeans and a sports shirt, didn’t get the memo.
Everyone laughed, a combination of serenity and sleep deprivation, no hint of nerves.
The last 24 hours before the election are going to be filled with such memories, the three men agreed, from how they dressed themselves to the final campaign stops on Air Force One to the unflinching confidence they projected to the reporters, a dozen digital recorders shoved in their faces, all of it with the bittersweet recognition in that this is probably it.
The last real campaign. Wouldn’t be the same again. Nope. Not a chance. This trip doesn’t have a sequel, and the future, no matter how bright, will always be a pale imitation of this: a cold, sunny November morning in Madison, Wisconsin, the most important human being in your life, Barack Obama, on stage, giving a speech you’ve heard at least 123 times, raising his voice, feeling it, bringing the audience to a kind of political ecstasy as you know only he can, finding the love, and going for the win.
Yes, the rush that only a billion-dollar gamble of a presidential campaign can provide. Stakes don’t get higher than keeping control of the most powerful office in the world. And on this day, November 5, we are witnessing the penultimate scenes in the cinematic drama known as The 2012 Reelection of President Barack Obama playing out, with rock legend Bruce Springsteen there to provide the theme songs as the credits start to roll.
Does having Springsteen and other celebrities on the trail help to get out the vote? a reporter asked.
“No, we just like their music,” Axe joked to laughs.
“They provide a marvelous soundtrack to our little briefing here,” Gibbs said.
“They can’t compete with Meat Loaf and Kid Rock, but they do alright,” Axe zinged, a sly poke at the GOP’s perennial lack of star power.
“It was a lot different from the beginning of this journey,” Plouffe added. “When it’d be Robert, Reggie, and then Senator [Obama] on Southwest and 10 people at events and you know we’ve come a long way—“
“The only music was on their iPods,” Axe cracked.
Four years ago, Obama and his advisers had pulled off one of the most shocking upsets in American political history, ushering in a new age of cool in Washington politics, a kind of post-racial Camelot. The first black president had convinced an entire generation to come out to the polls to put him in office, and the tight crew he surrounded himself with were the brains and savvy behind that once-in-a-lifetime ride.
It’d been a long four years — from the can-you-believe-it first day in the West Wing to the inevitable crash of expectations, the tragedies from the BP oil spill to Joplin to Aurora to Sandy. The world-historic events — escalate in Afghanistan, kill Bin Laden, secret drones, kill Gaddaffi, ride the rough surf of the Arab Spring. The bitter domestic fights over health care and bank regulations, and the joy in seeing those pieces of legislation stay intact. And now staring into the hopeful void — probably going to win this thing, and if so, let’s enjoy this last bit of air before getting back to the grind.
In that spirit, the core group that made up Obamaland had jumped on the trail for a mad dash around the country that would conclude Monday evening in Chicago, the spiritual home of the Obama White House. Accompanied by the hipness of celebrity — Bruce Springsteen in Madison, Jay-Z in Ohio, Pitbull in Florida — they tried to take it all in.
“I feel remarkably good," Gibbs told BuzzFeed a few minutes later. “A little nostalgic as we make the last few stops, [but] we said for a long time we have had the path to 270 electoral votes.”
Twenty feet away, national security adviser Ben Rhodes and speechwriter Jon Favreau hung out, watching the crowd react to their boss's speech and chatting with passing friends and colleagues.
How were they feeling? Very good, they said — good-sized crowds, good early numbers, and somehow “energized” despite three hours of sleep.
“It’s typical us,” Favreau said. “It’s not like I’ve felt super panicked or super overconfident.”
“We’re running our play and it looks good,” Rhodes said.
Both have been growing playoff beards, part superstition, part saving an extra 10 minutes in the morning, eeking out those last few seconds in whatever the Marriott/Sheraton/Westin/Holiday Inn hotel bed you fall down on.
At this stage, no one on the trail, even those responsible for the travel, know where they’ve been, and events of days ago feel like months — Cincinnati, Vegas, Orlando, Tampa, Manchester, Dubuque.
A few feet from Rhodes and Favreau, Jen Psaki, the campaign spokesperson, also a veteran of 2008, stood waiting for yet one more cable hit in front of the cameras on the silver riser nearby, her sunny smile, sharp fashion sense, and unmissable red hair flying out over the airwaves to spin the pundit class and reach the voters perhaps just finally tuning in.
Also on the trail from 2008, Reggie Love, the president’s body man who’d left the White House and was now joining him for the final leg.
Even President Obama was getting in on the nostalgia kick.
“I cannot imagine not being fired up after listening to Bruce Springsteen,” he said as he took the stage in front of a crowd of 18,000. “And I get to fly around with him on the last day that I will ever campaign — so that’s not a bad way to end things.”
In the last 24 hours of the campaign, time has taken on an elastic quality, staffers say, accelerating yet slowing down to the final stop-motion act for what for many has been a yearlong grind on the road.
After the Wisconsin event, staffers and press piled onto the bus, then into the airport, then onto the press charter, then onto to the final event, a series of actions that had been repeated hundreds of times over the past few months. The charter plane headed on an hour flight to Iowa, the state where Obama’s presidential aspirations became a reality. Landing at Des Moines International airport, staffers and press climbed down the steps, getting into what would now be only three bus rides left.
“It’s surreal, especially for people who were here a long time to be driving to the last campaign event,” said one Obama official who’d been with them in 2008. “It certainly is.”