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Obama Advisers, Congressional Colleagues Look Back on Last Four Years

September 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, former advisers to President Obama, discuss his leadership style, his record of decisive action, his unpopular decisions and his attempts to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, in his acceptance speech tonight, we know the president is going to be urging voters to stick by him for four more years, citing his record and his ability to lead.

To get a sense of how people who have worked closely with him see his leadership, I talked to several of them over the past few weeks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When President Obama was sworn into office three-and-a-half years ago, the nation was in the grip of an economic crisis at home, while fighting two hot wars overseas.

DAVID AXELROD, Senior Obama Campaign Strategist: We were essentially a triage unit when we arrived. Before we got there, the economy shrunk by 8.9 percent, worst quarter since 1930. We were losing 800,000 jobs a month. The banking and financial system was locked up.

RAHM EMANUEL (D), Mayor of Chicago: The manufacturing base of the country, auto industry, et cetera, is two weeks away from collapse. And America has now been nine years at war. Now, I said to him, I said, you know, can we have a priority? He goes, yeah, all of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Presidential advisers Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod said President Obama’s leadership style during those first chaotic months were vintage Obama. He would gather people together, consider all options and then take decisive action.

DAVID AXELROD: What he doesn’t encourage is needless conversation. He knows the information that he needs to make decisions. And he calls groups together to talk through those questions that he has.

RAHM EMANUEL: He listens to advice, makes people debate in front of him. He’s not scared of contrary advice.

He asks advice. There’s one last gut check, and then he moves.

DAVID AXELROD: We’re prepared for a very close race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Axelrod, senior adviser to the reelection campaign in Chicago, was the White House political director in the early years. He says the president isn’t afraid to take action that is unpopular and points to the bailout of the auto industry as a prime example.

DAVID AXELROD: You know, it was clear that the politics weren’t on the side of intervention, but he knew what the impact of losing a million jobs in the midst of this already difficult economic crisis would be, and he acted.

You can’t be a leader and sit there and wring your hands looking at polling and worrying about the political consequences of your decisions when there are big things at stake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of course, not every action taken by the president has worked according to plan.

Even Rahm Emanuel, who served as Mr. Obama’s first chief of staff and is now the mayor of Chicago, concedes that, as he ticks off a list of economic measures spearheaded by Mr. Obama.

RAHM EMANUEL: Was there something wrong with the TARP? Absolutely. Was there something wrong with Dodd-Frank? Not a doubt. Without a doubt. Was there something wrong with how we did the stress test? Sure.

But, collectively, the collective action got us off of where we were, and we’re in a different position today than we were not only three years ago now, but compared to where we are today vs. Europe is, having avoided making those choices.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that just because the president had the right instincts, or what?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, there is instincts. There’s tough calls.

MAN: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States!


JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the criticisms of Mr. Obama’s leadership is that he’s had so much difficulty winning support from Congress. Many Republicans say that’s because he was too beholden to his Democratic base.

Tom Davis is a former GOP congressman from Virginia.

TOM DAVIS (R), Former U.S. Congressman: When he got elected, I think he had every intention of trying to bring everybody together behind him. Let’s work together. But he had a Democratic Congress.

The minute you go over and sit down with the Republicans, you are going to have Pelosi and the Democratic groups saying, why are you dealing with these guys? We won the election.

So the pressures for him to produce a work product — and the Republicans weren’t just going to fall over and say, oh, yes, how do we work together?

It was a tough situation. When your party controls both houses, those interest groups want to control the agenda. They don’t want to give it away to the other side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the number two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, says the president often took on leaders of his own party. He recounted a late-night White House meeting on health care reform in January 2010. Democrats were arguing with the president to remove some oversight provisions.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-Ill.), Majority Whip: At midnight, the president stood up and said, “That’s it. You won’t agree. I’m leaving. You can leave when you like,” and walked out of the room. And it kind of stunned the people who were there.

RAHM EMANUEL: He wanted them to finally understand that this was — there was a couple things that, if that bill doesn’t include it, it does not include his signature. Don’t go here again. And that was the end of the subject.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not surprisingly, some of the toughest criticism of Mr. Obama’s leadership style comes from Republican congressional leaders.

In the summer of 2011, House Speaker John Boehner was quietly negotiating with the president, trying to reach a budget deal which would include enough entitlement cuts to bring Republican support and enough tax reform to gain acceptance by Democrats. There were several failed attempts, and then there appeared to be a breakthrough.

I talked to Boehner at the Republican Convention last week.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-Oh.), Speaker of the House: At the end, where we have an agreement, Eric Cantor and I and the president in the Oval Office on a Sunday late in July, we had an agreement.

And then, 48 hours later, it just evaporated. The president lost his courage. I don’t know why it fell apart, but it was clear that he was afraid to take on his own party. Listen, I understood the risks we were both taking, because I was as far out on a limb as I could possibly go.

But the president — the president’s — the president’s courage isn’t quite as strong as it should be to lead. At some point, you have to look at your staff and say, no, I’m not going there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Durbin and his fellow Democrats on the Hill dismiss Boehner’s account. They say the president bent over backwards to come to agreement with Republicans.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I really believe he made a good-faith effort to try to bring them in. Look at all of the backroom conversations with John Boehner, trying to work out something on the deficit. Time and again, the speaker would walk away. The president really made a commitment and a good-faith effort, and they just weren’t there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was it naive on his part to think — to wait so long, to give them so much room and so much space?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I guess, in hindsight, you could say he should have known earlier that they couldn’t be trusted to stick with us for a really tough decision, whether it was health care or dealing with the deficit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stylistically, Mr. Obama has been criticized for not making more of an attempt to cultivate personal relationships with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as President Clinton did, with things like regular bipartisan rounds of golf.

Durbin dismisses the comparison.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: The Bill Clinton presidency was a constant schmooze. It’s just his personality. It’s who he is.

And when you compare anyone to the Bill Clinton model of a Democratic president, they’re going to come off as different. The president is friendly. He’s open. He’s brought in members of Congress into more open meetings than I have ever seen before to talk about the issues. But he has a different personality than Bill Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even Republican Davis concedes that previous presidents who were known for their legislative achievements would have a tough time in the highly partisan talk show personality-driven climate of today.

Would a Lyndon Johnson model work today?

TOM DAVIS: We have obstacles today that LBJ or even a Nixon, who had a lot of legislative accomplishments, or even a Reagan — today, Ronald Reagan goes up and cuts a deal with Tip O’Neill, and if Sean Hannity didn’t like it, by the time they would get back to the White House — or if Rachel Maddow doesn’t like it, the deal is undone. That’s the difference today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Axelrod acknowledges that the polarized Capitol has forced Mr. Obama to change the way he governs.

DAVID AXELROD: We learned from some of the obstacles that we faced during the debt ceiling debacle that we needed to take these issues to the outside and really enlist the American people and make sure that they thoroughly were engaged in the discussion.

And that’s why we were able to pass a payroll tax cut that the Republicans first resisted, because the American people got involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Davis, however, is not optimistic that any real change in the political climate is possible, even if the president enlists more public support.

TOM DAVIS: The Republican base is rabid against Obama. He may win reelection, but the Republican base is just rabid and is unlikely to change and not tolerate those kinds of compromises.

The Republican leaders have to factor that in when they sit down at the table with the president. So, I mean — and the president has to understand that when he sits down with them the limitations that they have and maybe the concessions he has to make either verbally or transactionally to make that happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an outlook that makes future governing by either party problematic.