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The View From The West Wing

A conversation with White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

COVER STORYA Hard Sell For Congressional DemocratsCongressional Democrats hope to minimize midterm election losses by pursuing a limited legislative agenda this year, spending more time back home, and motivating their base by warning that Republicans could win back the power to implement conservative policies. [more...]

COVER STORYOn the Agenda In 2010Here is the state of play on major legislation pending in Congress.

HEALTH CARE With both chambers having finally approved health care reform legislation--the House on November 7 and the Senate on December 24--the odds are good that they will work out their disagreements and send a bill to President Obama. [more...]

ONLINE EXCLUSIVEQ&As With Campaign Committee Chairs
Van Hollen

During a January 7 interview with National Journal in his West Wing office, White House senior adviser David Axelrod described the legislation President Obama would like Congress to complete this midterm election year, and he said that even with persistent high unemployment, Democrats can make the case to voters that they are improving their lives. The following are edited excerpts.

NJ: Will President Obama have a simple message in 2010, one that Democratic candidates can run behind?


Axelrod: We're trying to build an economy that works for the middle class -- that creates a better future.

We had a responsibility and, frankly, Congress helped meet that responsibility, to deal with a potentially catastrophic situation with the economy, and we've made good progress in arresting the worst edge of this recession. But the truth is that many, many working people in this country were feeling economic anxiety before the recession, and if all we do is manage the crisis, then we will not have fulfilled our mission. I think people want to see us gaining jobs. And even so, we've lost 7 million in the last two years, so the storm may be passing but the wreckage is profound.

NJ: If health care reform becomes law, do you need significant new pieces of legislation to achieve the goal of building an economy that works for the middle class?


Axelrod: There are some things that will require additional legislative action, but there is a lot that is in motion now that we will manage in 2010 and I think holds great promise for everyday people. Jobs are No. 1. We're going to continue to do what we can to encourage hiring, because jobs are the centerpiece of the economy, and that's primary. We have to take [a jobs bill] up right away. When I say job creation is the most important thing we have to do, that would come under that heading.

We have to finish this health care bill successfully, and then we have to go out and we have to sell it. And I'm happy to have a discussion with the Republican Party about that. I think once we pass this health care bill, there are reforms that are going to go into effect immediately that are significant to people -- not just to people who don't have insurance, but to people who do. And that's a message that I think everyone who supports this reform should embrace and communicate, and we certainly will be communicating it.

We want to continue to work on the challenge of education costs, which is a huge burden on a lot of middle-class families. We've got more work to do to make college affordable, and/or training that people will need to secure a good quality of life in the future. On K-12 education, the Race to the Top initiative, we want to give that more lift. Much of it has been obscured by the health care debate and some of the other things we've had to do. We continue to be concerned about issues related to retirement security. We're looking forward to recovering home values, which has been a tremendous blow to a lot of middle-class families.

But there are also some pillars we need to complete: Financial reform [legislation] is really important, and I understand it's difficult. Just as there have been those in Congress who've stood with the insurance companies on health reform, there are some who are standing with the financial industry against financial reform. We need to see this through, because it's not only essential to everyday people to get a fair shake from the banks and financial institutions, but it's also, as we've seen, important to the stability of the economy. We need a way to manage through some of the potential crises that we've seen in ways that don't threaten to take the entire economy over the side.


NJ: What about climate-change and immigration legislation?

Axelrod: We want to get an energy bill done. The House has acted, and we want to work with the Senate to get something done. Senators [John] Kerry [D-Mass.] and [Lindsey] Graham [R-S.C.] have been working.

Obviously, we're not interested in embarking in symbolic fights or symbolic missions, but we're encouraged that people are talking. I expect that some form of energy bill is going to pass this year. I don't want to signal in any way that the president is walking away from the notion that we have to do something about that [larger climate-change] challenge. We want to pass an effective energy bill that will not only deal with that problem but will promote these other goals and make the U.S. an energy leader, and we're going to continue working at it. But it's going to require our ability to put together a coalition, and I don't think that coalition can only be Democrats and Democrats.

NJ: Does the president recognize the "big-bill fatigue" on Capitol Hill and the hopes of some lawmakers that they can ease up in 2010?

Axelrod: He understands that this has been an extraordinary year. But we also face extraordinary challenges, so a lot of that was required. He's called on Congress to do a lot this year, and we're going to have to continue to do things. I don't anticipate anything quite like this health care debate, because health care is such an enormously complex issue and there are so many aspects to it.

We came to office and immediately walked into a fiscal crisis, a financial crisis, and an economic crisis. It required some very difficult decisions, and it required everyone to spend some political capital. History will look back on that decision as a fateful one on the part of the Congress and the president that saved us from a much more difficult situation. That's a hard political argument to make.

It started the year off in a demanding way, and it didn't abate. We get all that, and I don't expect this year to be as demanding as last year was. That's not to say there won't be contentious issues here and there. That's not to say that we're going to hang the "Gone Fishing" sign on either the White House or the Congress. I don't think we can afford to do that.

But the reality is that there are limits beyond which we can't push, and we understand that. And at some point, the natural dynamics of an election year are going to take place. And there's going to be less and less of an appetite to be legislating, and there's going to be more and more of an appetite to be campaigning and communicating.

NJ: Some congressional Democrats envision 2010 as a year of publicly selling and clarifying what they've done. Do you see that as a good use of the midterm year?

Axelrod: If we succeed and we go out and campaign on what this [health care] bill really is, and campaign on all the reforms and all the consumer protections that will give every middle-class family more security even as they keep their own insurance, I think it will be a great plus for us.

A lot of things were accomplished this past year that simply we didn't have the opportunity to talk about. There's a good story to tell, and we'd like the time to tell it. Like the Ledbetter pay-equity bill, which has enormous meaning to women and families all over this country who want and deserve fairness in terms of pay; when you think about the credit card bill of rights; when you think about protecting kids from the predatory practices of the tobacco industry; when you think about national service [legislation].

We can't simply shut down for the year. There's work that has to be completed left over from last year, and we're going to work with [Congress] to get that done.

NJ: Between now and November, what about the Republicans, and the message about Republicans?

Axelrod: As you know, it's almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself. And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It's not going to be a referendum. They want to stand with the insurance industry on health care and protect the status quo, then let them defend that in an election. If they want to stand with the banks and the financial industries and protect the status quo, then let them explain that in an election. If the party that over eight years turned a $2 trillion surplus into the most significant growth in national debt by far in the history of the country and left this president with a $1.3 trillion deficit when he walked in the door, and an economic crisis, let them campaign on fiscal integrity.

You know, we're going to have -- we're certainly willing to have that discussion. The difference is that we'll have that discussion in the context of a campaign. And we haven't, in the midst of a crisis, tried to campaign every day in the halls of Congress.

NJ: Is there a message for Democrats that is some modern equivalent of "stay the course," that times may be tough but things have started moving in the right direction, and do you want to go back? Is that part of the midterm message, some version of that?

Axelrod: You know, I find "stay the course" a very unsatisfying message in the middle of a very difficult time. But I do think that the notion of going backward is a compelling message.

And I also think -- we'll see how the year unfolds, but it's hard to know exactly who the Republican Party is right now. They'll have a series of primary contests that will define them. A couple of years ago, Charlie Crist in Florida was considered one of the up-and-coming leaders in the Republican Party. He's under siege down there. His [state party] chairman was driven from office. I think all across the country -- we saw what happened in New York-23. We'll see what Republican Party we're facing in the fall.

It seems like the congressional leaders are mainly in the thrall of that group on the right.

NJ: When you look at the things you're trying to do on health care, climate change, financial regulation, do you view at all the possibility that those policies aren't compatible with holding some of the right-of-center places Democrats have won in the last two cycles under Bush?

Axelrod: That's more the fodder for analysts. Here's what I believe. I know what motivates this president. I know what his concerns are. He wants to give a fair shake for people who are not getting a fair shake, everyday people.

NJ: And that should play everywhere?

Axelrod: I absolutely believe that. I think there is a lot of anger and alienation out there today over what's happened in our economy and over this sort of breaking of faith with so many institutions, whether it's employers or even banks, or Washington itself.

I concede that Republicans have generally been better at generating heat than light, and they seem content to try to tap into that alienation, even though they routinely side with the very interests who are exploiting middle-class people, working people -- even though they stand every day and try to defend a status quo that is not working for everyday people, for the middle class.

I think there's a good debate to be had and it's one you can have in every state and every community in this country.

NJ: As you've watched the Democratic lawmakers in these tough districts and tough states, have you seen evidence that they are voting as if the agenda is incompatible with the constituents they represent?

Axelrod: Look, I think we've gotten good cooperation. Obviously we haven't gotten every Democrat on every vote. But we've gotten good cooperation. And this is largely the House that we're talking about -- we've gotten good cooperation out of folks there. The Republicans have done a good job of turning up the heat on people around some of these votes, and defining the votes negatively. But do I see people turning away? No. I think Democrats in the House have been very united around some big things.

And by the way, early on when we had to do things to save the economy from collapse, they were united around some difficult things. And as I said before, I think the measure of leadership is whether you're willing to do hard things that you know are right for the country, even though you have a reflexively negative opposition that you know is going to try to exploit that vote and distort it. And the fact that they have is something that they ought to -- particularly if the economy turns and jobs begin to flow, as we hope they will -- they ought to remind people who was willing to stand up and do the hard things to get this economy moving again, and who was not.

NJ: Last March, a popular new president came to a Senate Democratic policy luncheon and offered a pep talk that was largely aimed at the moderates in the room. He said his message to those senators facing re-election in 2010 was that distancing themselves from him and the party agenda was "just not going to help you any." At the start of 2010, is he still convinced that's the case?

Axelrod: As he's said many times, he's going to be featured in ads with members of Congress this year. It's just a question of whether they're our ads or the other side's ads. It's just that simple, and if we make our case right and the economy turns, it will be our ads. If not, it will be their ads, and that's the nature of politics.

The one thing that's been proven time and again is that people don't win by running away from presidents of their own party. If people want someone who's not going to stand with the president, then they're going to vote for someone in the other party. You're best served by helping your president succeed and going out and making a very strong case rather than trying to run.

I think there are a lot of ways in which '94 is not a great parallel to now -- structurally and in other ways -- but the one thing we learned in '94, I mean everyone said health care was a real problem for Democrats in '94, but it was a problem in part because they failed, and they failed just a few months before the election.

If we succeed and we go out and campaign on what this [health care] bill really is, and campaign on all the reforms and all the consumer protections that will give every middle-class family more security even as they keep their own insurance, I think it will be a great plus for us.

NJ: Some people are concerned about Democratic mobilization and engagement in the midterm. Is that going to be a problem, and is part of the answer the contrast with Republicans?

Axelrod: If the question is what we've been able to achieve, which I think is substantial, versus the ideal of what people hope for or hoped for, that's a harder race for us. If the choice is between the things we've achieved and we're fighting for and what the other side would deliver, I think that's very motivational to people.

And the truth is there is plenty to be enthused about that we've achieved this year, but a lot of it has been obscured by the major fights that we've had over the Recovery Act, over health care. We have to communicate those things, and we have to consciously reach out to those voters who came out in 2008 and motivate them.

NJ: What does Obama hope he can achieve this year or talk about this year that could get him back in the good graces of cranky independent voters?

Axelrod: Independent voters are independent for a reason. And we are now the party in office, so there's a certain presumption that we have to overcome just by dint of that. But I think independent voters are particularly jaundiced about the failure of our institutions to act responsibly. They're going to want to see [progress].

The question is really where we are 11 months from now -- whether people see signs of progress; whether they feel that they have an administration governing a party that is attuned to their concerns and anxieties and problems and trying to do something about it. I think we plainly are. We have to make the case for that.

But in certain ways, we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than things that we can control. If we see steady months of jobs growth between now and November, I think the picture will be different than if we don't. I'm guardedly optimistic that we are going to see that progress; there are signs of that. We're going to just keep doing everything we can to promote progress.

This article appears in the January 16, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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