Barack Obama knows a thing or two about winning elections and having pressed Italy’s Mario Monti into running for prime minister in next month’s elections, the US president is also lending some advice.
Mr Monti, long-time economics professor and former EU commissioner who was appointed technocrat prime minister in late 2011, has never run for elective office in his life, and it shows.
Enter David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s two-time campaign strategist, who responding to a report in Turin’s La Stampa, confirms to my FT Washington colleague Richard McGregor that his old firm AKPD Message and Media has been hired by Mr Monti. Mr Axelrod says he had been retained “to take a look and come in for a day to meet with Monti and his team, which I did.” He adds for transparency’s sake: “I no longer have an interest in AKPD.”
An aide to Mr Monti confirms in Rome that indeed “it’s true that two senior consultants from AKPD are part of Monti’s electoral campaign team.” They are not to be interviewed however.
Mr Monti finds himself in an odd position. He likes to be called a “reformist” rather than a “centrist”, but his main coalition partner is just that. The party is even called Union of the Centre and its leader, Pier Ferdinando Casini is the epitome of the old-school Catholic politician, a throw-back to the era of the Christian Democrats who represented anything but change, just a bulwark against the Communists who no longer exist.
Apart from the problem of political identity, Mr Monti needs to roll up his sleeves a bit and get off his podium. He is generally respected in Italy for doing a good job in rebuilding credibility lost under his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, but he is not really liked and is far from being loved. Standing up in Davos and commending Italians for putting a brave face on their “sacrifices” may go down well with markets and investors praying for stability, but it gets up the nose of many Italians who would like to see more “sacrifices” from the widely-hated political elite that Mr Monti has just joined.
Is Mr Axelrod the street-fighter having an impact? Perhaps, latest polls show Mr Monti’s Civic List inching up to 10 per cent, but still way behind Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right and Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left.
Still commentators see in Mr Monti’s latest media appearances a new steeliness and more aggressive language in attacking his rivals, particularly Mr Berlusconi.
As James Walston of the American University of Rome commented: “This is a battle between modern spin doctors, focus groups and opinion polls on the one hand and old fashioned clientelistic and machine politics on the other.”
Mr Monti may be getting to grips with that first category but Mr Berlusconi and his opponents on the left are masters of the latter.