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Axelrod Reflects on Struggles Over Stimulus, Troubled Cabinet Bids

February 6, 2009 at 6:15 PM EST
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White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod discusses President Barack Obama's stance in the struggle to pass a stimulus bill and reflects on errors made in how the Obama team has handled some of the nominations to top administration positions.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to our Newsmaker interview with White House senior adviser David Axelrod, substituting for White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who was scheduled to be with us tonight.

Mr. Axelrod, welcome.

DAVID AXELROD, Senior Adviser to President Obama: Thanks, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And thanks for doing this for us tonight. You’re in Colonial Williamsburg tonight at, what, the House Democratic retreat, correct?

DAVID AXELROD: Exactly. Exactly, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Now, tell us what you know from there, what you’ve heard, and can — you can tell us about the state of the negotiations over the economic stimulus plan.

DAVID AXELROD: Well, Jim, as you know, all the action’s in Washington, not here in Williamsburg today. This is on the Senate side. And I think discussions are still going on.

I hope that one thing that will have a sobering influence on these discussions is that unemployment figures from this morning, 600,000 more jobs lost last month.

To put that in perspective, that’s equivalent to all the jobs in the state of Maine and all the jobs in Pittsburgh, in the Cleveland area, and it’s a devastating number. And it’s only going get worse unless we intervene and do something that’s big enough and bold enough to make a difference.

That’s what the president wants, and I think the American people want it, too. And I hope that that’s what the Senate decides to do tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any evidence that there is a cause and an effect on that?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not there. I would hope so. I think that there are serious talks going on right now.

You know, what you have is a situation where a majority of the Senate wants to move forward with this package, but there’s a minority under the Senate rules who have the ability to block it.

The problem is that, as they engage in parliamentary back-and-forth, there are families all over this country who are suffering, people who’ve lost their jobs who are wondering how they’re going to pay their bills or stay in their home or take care of their kids, and they’re looking to us to provide some relief and some hope.

So, you know, I hope that they will wrap their negotiations up and we can move forward.

White House pushing stimulus

JIM LEHRER: Is it safe to assume that the White House is directly involved in these negotiations tonight?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, we are making clear that we want this to move forward. Obviously, the House and the Senate will then have to reconcile some of the differences between their approaches, but we have to keep this moving forward.

We feel a sense of urgency about this. And that urgency gets deeper by the day. Every day, the president meets with his economic advisers, and it begins with a report on the latest economic data. And every day, our sense of urgency and alarm grow.

We know -- we believe that we can turn the corner and turn this economy around over time. But the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be. The deeper the recession is going to be. And the American people have a right to expect us to act, and we're prepared to do that. We hope the Senate is, too.

JIM LEHRER: But just for the record here, Chief of Staff Emanuel is involved in that now. That's where he had to go, am I right about that?

DAVID AXELROD: I believe he's on Capitol Hill. But -- and I'm sure he's representing the administration's point of view. But the Senate will develop its bill. The House has developed its bill. And then there will be a reconciliation between the two, and we'll go from there.

I mean, the president has a very strong feeling about this, that we need to -- we need a package that's large enough to create 3 million to 4 million jobs in the next couple of years and that we have to do things that, as much as we can, things that will not only create jobs in the short run, but will leave a lasting footprint in the long run, in terms of the potential for economic growth.

So, for example, investing heavily on the energy sector and doubling the number of -- the amount of renewable energy used in the country. And that not only will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but it will lay the groundwork for energy independence, for dealing with the issue of global warming.

Rebuilding 10,000 schools with the classrooms of the 21st century, labs and libraries, that's not only going to put people to work, but it's going to help our kids compete in the future.

Rebuilding, Jim, roads and bridges and dams so we don't have to deal with great tragedies, face great tragedies like the one we saw in New Orleans or Minneapolis.

We can put people to work doing the work that America needs done. And all we need is for people to lay politics aside and keep their eye on the ball to get this done. And that's what we hope will happen tonight.

JIM LEHRER: But the new polls show, as you know, that there is a declining public support for the stimulus package and that's what's caused this stalemate in the Senate negotiations, no? You're shaking your head.

DAVID AXELROD: No, I am shaking my head because I dispute that. I've seen polls in the last 24 hours, polls that I trust, that show no diminution of support, in fact, marginally stronger support for it. I think there's very strong support for this in the country, Jim.

You know, one thing I've learned in the brief time that I've been in Washington is that it's very hard to see what's going on in the country from there because it's a kind of echo chamber where everybody is talking to each other.

But get outside the beltway and get into the country, and what you hear are people who are desperate for action and they want us to act. They don't share this notion that we can delay. And there are little bewildered as to what's going on right now.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say that there aren't enough votes, meaning 60 votes in the Senate, to move this ahead as we speak right now?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I presume that, when there's 60 votes, they will move forward with a bill. And I think the discussions are ongoing right now. We're hopeful that that will happen. But, you know, I think, if they'd had the 60 votes earlier, then this bill would have moved earlier.

JIM LEHRER: And there wouldn't be discussions going on right now, right? So it's one and one makes two here, right?

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. Do you think that...

DAVID AXELROD: Exactly, yes.

Obama toughens tone

JIM LEHRER: The president's kind of using a little tougher rhetoric has made a difference, as well? He's used all kinds of words about -- well, today, "It's inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in all of this." He said, "The American people did not send us to Washington to get stuck in partisan posturing." Do you think that's had any effect on Washington and in the Senate?

DAVID AXELROD: I don't know, but I think the president feels a great deal of impatience at this point, because, as I said, he hears more and more data. Every day, he gets letters from people across the country and he reads a sampling of those letters. And the stories are heartbreaking.

People are looking to him and looking to Congress to act, because only the federal government can do what needs to be done at this moment. Now, the plan creates -- 90 percent of the jobs the plan creates will be in the private sector, but we need the catalyst that the federal government can be.

And so I think his frustration is that there are people who are hurting. They need help. We need to create jobs again. We need to turn this cycle -- we're in a spiral here that is very destructive, and he wants to break that cycle and get us moving in the right direction. He wants to do it now and not down the road.

Every day we go on, this thing gets worse. And we need to start turning that dynamic around.

JIM LEHRER: Correct to say no more Mr. Nice Guy on this, no more bipartisanship?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, we are willing to talk with anybody, Republican, Democrat, independent, to move this program forward. We've been open to ideas from both sides of the aisle. And this program reflects suggestions from both sides of the aisle.

But at some point, you have to move forward, and now's that time. And so the president will continue to talk to anyone who wants to talk to him in the best -- you know, to move this country forward. And he believes in civility and he believes in moving forward in the spirit of mutual regard.

But he also believes that talk is inadequate when the country's in an economic crisis and that at some point you have to fish or cut bait. You have to move forward.

And I think that all those, you know, all the folks who are in Congress must be hearing from their own constituents about the economic travails they're facing. We have to address those, and we have to address them now.

JIM LEHRER: So it's now an Obama Democratic stimulus plan, right? If this thing passes and only by just a couple of votes or by one vote, say, then that's what it is. It's not a bipartisan plan, correct?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, Jim, here's what I would say. We are interested in building coalitions to move the country forward, but mostly we're interested in moving the country forward. And however we have to do it, we're going to do it.

I think the American people are less concerned at this point about the composition of the vote than they are about the success of the plan, and they want to move the plan forward. We're going to move the plan forward. And we're inviting anyone who wants to be a part of the solution to this economic crisis to join us and join us now.

Mistakes in vetting Daschle

JIM LEHRER: All right, another subject, Mr. Axelrod. President Obama said he made a mistake on the Daschle nomination situation. Did you and your colleagues on the White House staff also make a mistake on that?

DAVID AXELROD: Of course. Of course. We failed him. We advise him. And we should have seen what he saw and what he said in those interviews the other night.

Tom Daschle is an outstanding expert and advocate on health care. He has an unparalleled knowledge of Congress. He would have been a great asset in the goal of health care reform, of getting affordable health care to every American, bringing down the cost of health care.

And we were so focused on that goal that we overlooked the -- we overlooked the message that that was sending, in terms of, as the president said, two sets of rules, one for the powerful and one for everybody else.

So, yes, we failed him. And we made a mistake. But one of the great qualities that Barack Obama has -- and we saw it throughout the campaign -- I've known him for 16 years -- is his ability to learn from mistakes and to point everyone in the right direction.

So I think we've all learned from our mistakes. And, hopefully, we'll do better.

JIM LEHRER: Have you gone back as a result of the Daschle situation and others and done any re-dos, in terms of vetting, in terms of evaluating what matters here and what does not matter?

For people, for instance, who haven't even -- people like you, people on the White House staff who have not had to go through congressional oversight, just to make sure everything fits the way the president wants it to fit?

DAVID AXELROD: Yes, well, I mean, I think that we -- yes, I think it's fair to say that there were lessons learned from this and that there have been discussions and meetings about how we're going to move forward on various personnel matters and how we're going to move forward in terms of approaching the vetting process and so on, so as to try to avoid those kinds of situations.

Jim, I can't guarantee you that there won't be any mistakes in the next four years. But, as I said, all we can do is learn from the one we made and try and do better.

And I have no doubt that we will. We want to keep faith with the spirit of our campaign and with a vision of governance that the president believes in. And all of us who work for him have an obligation to uphold that.

JIM LEHRER: But no major changes in the process has come out of the Daschle situation?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, as I said, I think there were some lengthy meetings and discussions in the wake of that about issues moving forward. And, you know, I don't -- I don't think that there's a -- I'm not going to make a declaration here about exactly systemically what we're doing other than to say lessons were learned and those lessons are being applied.

JIM LEHRER: How serious is the damage that the Daschle result has done to this first -- we're now two-and-a-half weeks into the Obama administration?

DAVID AXELROD: You know, Jim, here's my feeling. I think that, as he said the other night, the commitment he made to the American people to change wasn't that he would never make a mistake, but that, when he did, that he would -- that he and we would own up to it, take responsibility for it. I think that's what the president did.

And I think that was a welcomed change in Washington. And I think people appreciated that. I think they understand where his heart is and what he believes and what he believes about how government should operate.

And I don't think that, at the end of the day, this undermined that. It was unfortunate, but I believe that the American people understand where he wants to lead, what he's about. And I think his support is very strong.

And, you know, I'm not -- I don't live and die by polls, but virtually every one has shown that his support is just as strong today as it was a week ago, two weeks ago, and three weeks ago. And that's heartening.

JIM LEHRER: What about any particular damage it might do to the momentum that the president wanted on reforming health care as a result? Are you concerned about that? Are you moving quickly to try to find a substitute, et cetera?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, there's no question that we're going to fill that slot quickly. It's an enormous issue. And the Department of Health and Human Services has a broad array of responsibilities that require strong leadership. So we're going to screen all the options quickly, and he's going to move quickly.

Look, Sen. Daschle brought a lot to this, and he's a loss, but the momentum comes from the president of the United States and the people of the United States who are being pummeled and have been for some time by health care costs they can't afford, businesses and families both.

It's an issue that we have to deal with, and we will deal with it.

Easy to 'lose touch' in Washington

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Axelrod, you made the point yourself about just coming to Washington recently, unlike a lot of the people who are in the Obama administration and in the Obama White House. Is there anything that really surprised you or disappointed you or any -- what, after two-and-a-half weeks, where are you?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, first of all, it's a great honor to serve the country, and it's a particular honor to serve this president. So I feel privileged to do that; I'm not going to complain about anything.

But I did relearn the lesson that I've often believed and one of the reasons that I worked outside of the capital in my business, in my political consulting business, was I always thought I was maybe more effective living outside the kind of -- the caldron of Washington, the echo chamber of Washington.

And one thing that is very, very clear is that, if you don't -- if you're not careful, you can really lose touch very easily with the American people. And that's something the president reminds us of all the time. That's why he reads those letters. Frankly, it's why he fought to keep his BlackBerry and why he's going to go out and about and travel and talk to people.

The most important thing that we have to do is keep touch with the American people. If you can't keep in touch with the American people, then you can't keep faith with them, so he's going to be doing that in a variety of ways, through the Internet, through his travels, and we're all going to do that, as well.

JIM LEHRER: OK. David Axelrod, thank you. And, again, thank you for being with us tonight.

DAVID AXELROD: Pleasure, Jim. Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Since that interview was recorded earlier this evening, there's been word of a breakthrough in the Senate stimulus talks. Wire services reported a tentative agreement on a bill costing $780 billion. The report said key senators worked out the deal with White House officials.