Updated at 1:25 p.m. on Jan. 11.
The White House strategy for contesting the midterm election is beginning to take shape.
In an interview with National Journal, senior White House political adviser David Axelrod laid down several keys to strengthening the Democratic position in an election that all signs suggest is shaping up as extremely difficult for his party. Axelrod's checklist includes improvement in the economy, some (but not vastly more) legislative action and, most pointedly, an effort to draw sharper contrasts with Republican positions. His comments may foreshadow a much more pugnacious Democratic message as the election approaches.
"It's almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself," Axelrod insisted. "And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It's not going to be a referendum."
Asked what has to happen in the next 10 months to produce the best possible result for Democrats in November, Axelrod didn't hesitate in identifying his top priority: an economy that is adding, rather than losing, jobs each month. "I think job growth is certainly number one," he said. "I think that's how most people measure a recovering economy."
To nudge that process along, he says, he expects Congress to quickly conclude legislation to promote job growth: "We have to take that up right away," he said. Still, he has no illusions about the capacity of further legislation to significantly affect the employment trajectory -- or the likely impact next fall if it doesn't improve.
"In certain ways we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than things we can control," Axelrod said. "If we see steady months of jobs growth between now and next November, I think the picture will be different than if we don't. I think Ronald Reagan learned that lesson in 1982. We're not immune to the physics of all of this. But I'm guardedly optimistic that we are going to see that progress. You know, there are signs of that. We're going to just keep doing everything we can to promote progress."
Next on his checklist: "finish this health care bill successfully." And after that? "Then we have to go out and sell it," he said. "I think we can run on this. I think there is so much in here that has value to every American, and mostly to people who have insurance."
In the conversation, Axelrod mentioned several other legislative initiatives that the White House hopes Congress will complete this year, including an energy bill. But asked what else Congress could pass before November that might significantly improve Democratic prospects, he cited only one other area: reform of financial regulation. "I wouldn't put this on that order of magnitude [as health care] at all, but I think if we pass a financial reform that includes strong consumer provisions, reins in some of the worst excesses of the industry, I think that would be useful, would be helpful," he said.
More important than new initiatives, he suggested, would be reframing the debate on what has already happened in Washington since Obama took office. On the one hand, he argued, the campaign will provide Democrats an opportunity to tout legislative successes, like bills strengthening federal regulation of tobacco and credit card companies, that have been almost completely eclipsed by the high-profile confrontations over the economy and health care.
On the other, he hinted, would be sharper efforts to compare the Democratic agenda with Republican priorities. While Republicans are hoping that voters will view the election as a referendum on Democratic performance, he said Democrats will work to frame the election more as a choice between the parties -- and present an aggressive case against the GOP alternative.
"They want to stand with the insurance industry on health care and protect the status quo, then let them defend that in an election," Axelrod said. "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... 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 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."
Responding to Axelrod's arguments, Republican pollster Glen Bolger said he was dubious that Democrats will succeed in shifting the focus toward the GOP. "It's pretty unlikely," said Bolger, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, which polls widely for GOP candidates. "Basically, that is something that the party that is under the gun always says, and it is never the case. [In a midterm election] it is about who is in control and how people feel about how things are going in the country. And right now, as far as I can tell, Democrats seem to have pretty significant control of things but things aren't going all that well."
Axelrod suggested that another pillar of the Democratic message this year will be that Republicans are offering a return to policies that produced the sharp economic downturn. "I think that the notion of going backward is a compelling message," he said. Bolger predicted that would be a hard sell, too. "Ultimately, it didn't work for Republicans in 1982 to say, 'Stay the course' or, 'Hey, remember [Jimmy] Carter and the Democrats got us into this mess,'" he said.
Axelrod sees other benefits in drawing sharper contrasts with the GOP, arguing that it could help motivate the Democratic base, which several polls have shown to be less enthused about voting this year than Republicans. "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," he said. "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."
Included in that effort, he said, would be a concentrated focus on first-time and other irregular voters, many of them minorities and young people, who surged to the polls for Obama in 2008 but typically turn out at lower rates in midterm elections. "One of our missions has to be in the next 11 months to communicate rigorously with those voters and make the case for why it's important that they come out even when the president isn't on the ballot, and what the consequences are of not doing that," Axelrod said. "I think we can make that case. We're sophisticated enough in the art of communicating, the technology of communicating, that we can reach a lot of those voters."
National Journal reporter Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report. For more on National Journal's interview with Axelrod, see the story in this Friday's magazine on the legislative agenda for 2010.