David Axelrod is the senior strategist for President Obama’s reelection bid, and his mustachioed mug is probably the most familiar face of the campaign. After helping Obama win in 2008, Axelrod was a senior adviser in the White House. In a recent phone interview from campaign headquarters in Chicago, he defended the president’s record and addressed Mitt Romney’s emerging cash advantage. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ President Obama has been vague about what he would accomplish in his second term.
AXELROD The president believes you build a strong, sustainable economy by building a strong, viable growing middle class. You have to continue to upgrade our educational system and improve access to higher education and technical training. We have to invest in research and development and the kinds of things that will create high-end, advanced manufacturing jobs. We have to continue to open up markets all over the world for American products. We need to continue with an all-of-the-above energy policy and really push for the development of all sources of energy. Immigration reform is an unfinished piece of business. But the principal thing we need to be pursuing is a very aggressive strategy of putting people back to work.
NJ How would the president accomplish those goals with a Republican-controlled House and possibly Senate?
AXELROD They have had a policy of obstruction from the day the president arrived. When the president is reelected, it will be a rejection of the politics of obstruction. There’s this reign of terror going on in the Republican Party.
NJ Obama criticized the Citizens United decision. But didn’t he partly contribute to the big-money climate when he declined public financing in 2008?
AXELROD He declined in part because the system was already porous—as we saw in 2004 with the “Swift Boat” spending—and our anticipation was that we would face that again in 2008.
NJ How can Obama’s embrace of gay marriage not be viewed as a political maneuver when it followed an unexpected remark by the vice president and has been used to raise money?
AXELROD I watched him wage a two-year battle on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, introduce partnership rights within the federal government, and pass the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes [Prevention] Act. He’s consistently taken a position against states that take away rights from gay and lesbian Americans. He decided not to appeal the rulings on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Everything he’s done is consistent with the [gay-marriage] position he’s taken.
NJ The campaign has been warning donors that Romney and his allied super PACs will outspend Obama. Does a president need as much money as a challenger?
AXELROD We are facing the prospect that we are going to be significantly outspent on television by the time this election is over, so we need to reach a certain level of competitiveness in order to ward that off. But there’s no doubt, given his record and his history and what he’s proposing for the country, that Governor Romney may need more money than we do to try explain all that to people and why it would be in their interest. Their theory is that they can simply overwhelm us with money, and we’re going to resist that mightily.
NJ The president had said he couldn’t implement the Dream Act alone. Why did he change his mind?
AXELROD What the president said was, he didn’t have the legal authority to categorically exempt the Dream Act kids. But he does have the authority on a case-by-case basis to review, and that’s what they’re doing. Is it a substitute for a law or a substitute for a comprehensive solution? No.
NJ No president in decades has won reelection with an 8 percent jobless rate. How do you expect to defy history?
AXELROD Don’t sell the American people short. They understand that when the president took office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month, and they understand that in the six months before he took office, we lost 4 million jobs. These problems took years to develop, and it’s going to take some time to remedy them. We have seen private-sector job growth—4.4 million jobs in the last 28 months—and we need to accelerate that. All we’ve gotten from the other side, all they said we should do even today, is to go back to what we did in the last decade—cut taxes skewed very much to the wealthy, unleash Wall Street to write its own rules, and return to the casino capitalism that really damaged our economy.
NJ What do you tell critics who find it unseemly for the president to make fundraising calls from Air Force One?
AXELROD We are well within the parameters of what’s been done before, and we’re well within the parameters of what’s appropriate.
This article appears in the July 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.