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Sunday, December 4, 2016

CHICAGO — He had just been through the roughest patch of President Obama’s re-election struggle and yet senior adviser David Axelrod seemed, if not quite serene, then at least amiably stoic.

Chatting in his spartan office at the Obama campaign’s mother ship in downtown Chicago last week, Axelrod reflected on a pep talk he had delivered the previous day to the operation’s vast and impressively young staff, urging them to ignore all the intimations that a gaffe, some bad economic numbers and a bit of downward movement in some polls spelled doom for their cause.

“There is some virtue in being old in this business,” Axelrod, 57, said, reliving what amounted to his moment as a coach asking the team to dig deep after a tough quarter — though he used a different metaphor. “It’s like being an old astronaut. I’ve been up to the space shuttle before. I’ve experienced the G’s before. It doesn’t make them less uncomfortable. But you’ve experienced them before.”

As Axelrod spoke, his boss’ image appeared on the television screen on his desk. Obama was offering a speech in Cleveland aimed at giving substance to Axelrod’s hopes by shifting the dialogue away from immediate troubles to a larger choice “between two paths for our country.”

Whether or not last Thursday’s rhetorical volley between Obama and Mitt Romney on the economy was one of those “defining” or “game-changing” moments that pundits love to tout, it was a powerfully instructive passage in the campaign. It made clear not only how fundamentally different Obama’s and Romney’s ideas for the future are but also how the next four months or so will involve a bitter contest to shape the way voters perceive what’s at stake in November.

Romney will talk a great deal about economic freedom and enterprise, but mostly he wants to make this a classic throw-the-bums-out election. His core message is about as simple as political arguments come: Things are bad. Obama didn’t fix them. Try the other guy, i.e., me.