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Axelrod on Pro-Obama Super PAC: ‘We Simply Couldn’t Sit by’

February 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama's senior campaign strategist David Axelrod spoke with Judy Woodruff about the president's re-election campaign, the new Priorities USA Action super PAC run by former administration staffers, efforts to create jobs and the administration's ruling on contraceptives that created a firestorm among religious leaders.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the race for the White House, shaping up to be an expensive general election battle.

President Obama’s reelection campaign reversed its stance against super PACs late yesterday, encouraging contributors to donate money to a group, Priorities USA Action, run by former administration staffers.

“With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election, whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm,” wrote Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a blog post.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s time to put strict limits . . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama had criticized the Supreme Court ruling wiping away limits on corporate and labor union giving.

The shift by the Obama team comes as super PACs backing Republican candidates and causes have seized an early financial advantage. Groups supporting Republican presidential candidates had raised more than 34 million dollars combined by the end of last year.

I don't think anybody had an idea of just how much money these super PACs were going to raise . . . They've spent more money than all the Republican candidates in these primaries . . . And that was the appetizer. We're the entree.David Axelrod

Another conservative super PAC, American Crossroads, has hauled in more than $18 million. By contrast, the pro-Obama PAC has brought in less than $5 million.

But the president’s own campaign has received more money than all the GOP contenders combined. The administration’s change of heart also comes on a day when Republicans are voting in three more states and as the leading GOP candidate, Mitt Romney, continues to lambaste President Obama’s record.

And for more on the president’s reelection bid, we turn to his senior campaign strategist, David Axelrod.

David, thank you very much for joining us.

First, on this reversal . . .

DAVID AXELROD, Senior Obama Campaign Strategist: Happy to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . on whether to encourage your donors to give money to the so-called super PACs, does this mean you don’t think you can win this election based on the contributions of ordinary Americans?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, no.

We certainly appreciate the contributions of ordinary Americans — 1.3 million people have donated to the president’s campaign, most of them in small contributions, 98 percent of them in small contributions. And we appreciate that.

What we’re looking at, though, Judy, is something we have never seen before, something unleashed by that Supreme Court ruling. And we’ve seen massive amounts of money coming in to these super PACs. And by our estimate and by their own estimate, they intend to spend upwards of half-a-billion dollars, above and beyond what the Republican nominee and the Republican National Committee is going to spend in this election.

And faced with that, you know, we had to act. The president believes deeply that these super PACs are an unwelcome development in our politics and is going to continue to try and find ways to reform them, up to and including a constitutional amendment.

But right now, these are the rules, and the question is, are we going to have two sets of rules or are we going to have one set of rules? And we couldn’t sit — we simply couldn’t sit by and allow $500 million, $600 million, $700 million of negative ads be run against us, with no one on the other side responding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it was pretty clear from the outset that this was going to be the case, a lot of money was going to be raised.

That being the case, why didn’t the president stick — I mean, he clearly felt so strongly about this. Why did he change his mind?

DAVID AXELROD: Judy, I don’t think anybody had an idea of just how much money these super PACs were going to raise.

And now, you know, we see the reality of it. They’ve spent more money than all the Republican candidates in these primaries, over $40 million, and 99 percent of it on negative ads. And that was a little preview. That was the appetizer. You know, we’re the entree. And they’re going to spend multiples of that to try and defeat the president.

And it is simply — it is not wise and it’s not right for us to sit by with our hands tied behind our back and allow that, the election to be hijacked by these groups.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about the economy. There was a good report that came out last Friday on jobs, the unemployment rate.

But a number of respected economists say they don’t expect that trend to continue.

Are you, in effect, David Axelrod, sort of held hostage every month to these unemployment numbers?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, first of all, let’s stipulate that the most important thing isn’t our link to the unemployment rate, but to, you know, how the American people are experiencing this economy.

We’re fighting hard to increase – we’ve had 23 straight months of private sector job growth. That’s accelerating. We want to continue to accelerate that because that’s good for our country. And, obviously, you know, it is good for us as well.

But — and in terms of the economists’ projections, I think one thing that we have learned over the course of these years is that no one really has a crystal ball on these things. And I have seen more robust projections, less robust.

The best thing for us to do is keep our nose to the grindstone, keep pushing, keep pushing forward and taking the steps we think will help accelerate the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, still has a primary fight on his hands, but your campaign has pretty much been treating him as the eventual nominee.

What are the strengths that you see in Mitt Romney that make you assume that he will be?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, he’s been a weak front-runner from the beginning. He continues to be a weak front-runner. He has far more resources than anyone else. He’s run for president now twice. He’s got a national organization.

It seems like the Republican establishment has largely embraced him in this race. So it’s logical to assume that he — you know, he continues to be a weak front-runner, and that he may be the nominee of the party. And we’re prepared for that. He certainly projects himself that way.

And we’ll be prepared for that debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in terms of framing the campaign at this point going forward, your major challenge is what?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, we’re going to project a positive vision for how we move forward as a country and rebuild, not just regain the jobs we have lost, but rebuild an economy in which the middle class is growing, and not shrinking, in which people who work hard can get ahead, in which people can look forward to a better future for their kids.

That’s how we measure progress in the economy. And there is going to be a very distinct difference between the way we approach it and the way the folks on the other side do, and particularly Gov. Romney, who seems to believe that, if we just go back to what we were doing and cut taxes for the very wealthy, cut regulations on Wall Street, that somehow we’ll all profit from that and the economy will grow. Well, we just tested that proposition and it failed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The administration decision to require religious charities, universities and others, hospitals, to include contraceptives in the health services they provide has created a huge firestorm in the leadership of the Catholic Church and other religious leaders.

You said earlier today in an interview, David Axelrod, that the administration would work with these institutions to implement this policy. What does that mean? Does that mean you’re prepared to give them some sort of an out?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, Judy, let’s back up and do — just recite a little history of how we got to where we are.

The Institute of Medicine recommended to the health and human services secretary, Sebelius, that contraceptive services be part of the package that are in every woman’s insurance package, insurance policy, as preventive care. She added an exemption for religious institutions, for churches and their employees.

The question is, does that extend to hospitals? Does that extend to universities where many people work who aren’t even Catholic? And do those women get — essentially don’t — do they get the same rights and the same privileges as everyone else to that preventive care?

And, you know, we believe strongly that that should be the case. And, in fact, that’s the policy in 28 states today. So what we have said is, we’re going to have a year’s period of time in which to transition to this. And that will give us a chance to look at what these others — how this is implemented elsewhere, how we can implement it here in the best and fairest way, but certainly advancing the principle that women deserve access to contraception, and those women, those teachers, nurses, janitors and so on who work in these institutions deserve access, just like everybody else.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, very quickly, to clarify, are you saying there may be some exceptions?

DAVID AXELROD: I’m saying that there are models all across the country that can be emulated, including, by the way, in Massachusetts, which was in place when Gov. Romney was there, and in Georgia, which has no exemptions, where Speaker Gingrich is from.

These policies have been in place. Half the country has these policies. And we should be able to learn from that in implementing this and move forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Axelrod, senior strategist to the President Obama re-elect campaign, thanks very much.

DAVID AXELROD: Good to be with you.