Bipartisan Battles

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    Rahm Emanuel   White House chief of staff (2009-2010)

    He was Obama's chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 before he left the White House to run for Chicago mayor. Here, Emanuel discusses why the president ran into trouble in his attempts to create "a post-partisan environment and more productive Washington." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 26, 2012.

    Bipartisanship was the thing that the president had sold. How did you all talk about planning to do it, to actually deal with it? How was the debate?

    Part of it was, getting a post-partisanship, was to get Washington moving. I mean, it was an end result. It wasn't just what kind of meetings you were going to have. It was to get Washington moving.

    And the first two to three bills -- look, we passed Lilly Ledbetter reform as it relates to equal pay, bipartisan. We passed kids' health care. George Bush had vetoed it three times, insuring 10 million children health care, bipartisan passed. Even the stimulus bill, although people remember it from a partisan, the key votes were the three Republicans in the Senate. A lot of people were upset that we were allowing that, but to get it done -- so it was bipartisan.

    Now that's one. But it wasn't to -- yes, he made a pledge for a post-partisan environment and more productive Washington. The auto industry you had to do administratively, and today it is creating jobs rather than facing bankruptcy, even with partisan attacks and against people who recommended bankruptcy. Many voices in the Republican Party and the financial establishment, bankruptcy was better. I think for the president, that was not the option. …

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    Rahm Emanuel   White House chief of staff (2009-2010)

    He was Obama's chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 before he left the White House to run for Chicago mayor. Here, Emanuel discusses why the president ran into trouble in his attempts to create "a post-partisan environment and more productive Washington." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 26, 2012.

    But as far as the stimulus and what it says about the relationships with Congress and where they were going from there on in, what did you take away from the way they dealt with the request in that meeting with him?

    Well, here's the thing. I draw my conclusion, if I can -- let me go back two months before the election. President Bush asked the Democratic leadership in the House in September of '08: "The country's coming to a financial collapse. I want you to meet with [Federal Reserve Chair Ben] Bernanke, my secretary of the treasury, and my head of the Securities Exchange Commission." This is two months before a presidential election.

    Now, if you wanted to be political -- usually starting September forward is a pretty political environment -- you would say, "Mr. President, there's a financial problem; it's your problem." Democrats didn't do that. I remember, I was up till 2:00 in the morning with Hank Paulson in an anteroom working through some very tough things while an election was happening because it was in the interest of the country.

    And when the first bill was sent up, the Republicans walked away from President Bush, even while the country was at risk.

    Now, four weeks after the election, which is now a number of months later, four weeks into the presidency, so you don't have really a lot of partisanship to -- there's not a lot of hard feelings; you're not four years into it, you're not four months. It's four weeks. No. Before he shows up for a meeting. And for the three Republicans that are sitting and trying to work out an agreement on a stimulus bill, they're viciously attacked on the Senate floor.

    So when you ask me, creating the post-partisanship, I know the first two bills were passed bipartisan, by the desire of the White House, because we made some changes. And we tried on the stimulus bill to get bipartisanship, and it was rejected within the first four weeks. And it's in direct contrast to what Democrats on the Hill did with President Bush with two months left on his presidency with a national election to go. …

    So what was the view? What did Obama take from that? He had sold the idea that he was able to sit down and talk with anyone.

    But I mean, his view was we're going to continue to work to try to create a place where we can find common ground. And we did that. Kids' health care, not only earlier, but kids' tobacco legislation. Leadership would vote against it, but we would work with a number of individuals who were willing to do that.

    When we did the Consumer Bill of Rights, that was also a place where we broke or created a rift between the leadership who was absolute no and the membership that wanted to look for chances. But it became a place where, with primaries and the Republican primary, very difficult for a Republican willing to say that "I'm willing to cooperate." And there's a lot of Republicans who lost primaries, who decided to take a chance on bipartisanship.

    Why was that?

    You can't be serious about that question.

    You're a man who knows Congress better than anyone.

    Look, there's a bigger change. It's not about Washington. Washington is a mirror reflection sometimes of what goes on in the country. There has been a dramatic shift in the Republican Party in the center of gravity, OK? The most dramatic way of saying it is I don't think Ronald Reagan would be nominated by the Republican Party today. It's moved that far. If you look at his record as governor, there's no way today that he'd ever become the nominee of their party. That's one.

    Two, for the few Republicans that decided to try to work together, they've all been primaried. Some of them lost. Some of them, like [Sen.] Olympia Snowe [R-Maine], retired.

    Now, there are key parts of legislation that reflect Republican philosophy and ideology. But it became so bad that even when you did things that they were willing to do in the past, they couldn't be for it without huge political consequences to their own individual futures.

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    Rahm Emanuel   White House chief of staff (2009-2010)

    He was Obama's chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 before he left the White House to run for Chicago mayor. Here, Emanuel discusses why the president ran into trouble in his attempts to create "a post-partisan environment and more productive Washington." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 26, 2012.

    So you go through this summer of discontent, the Tea Party rising up and such. What was the read on that, the anger that seemed to be out there about health care?

    I've got to tell you, I don't really buy your premise, OK? It's not like health care organized the Tea Party. It's not like he didn't have a lot of people barking at him when he was running for the presidency. A lot of people that were quote/unquote "in the Tea Party" were already people that opposed him.

    Well, you look at the demonstrations, there's a lot of pictures of him in pretty weird stances.

    And there were a lot of people saying things when he was running against [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] and [Gov.] Sarah Palin [R-Alaska] at their rallies that were not exactly pretty things either.

    So how did you read what was happening?

    It was an outgrowth of what happened in the campaign and his presidency, and not just the policies, but also about the person, and also some of the policies.

    But also you were living in a time -- let's not forget this -- we had just come through a decade that, for the first time, the middle-class standard of living had declined. We hadn't ever experienced that as a country. The middle class went through a period of quote/unquote "economic expansion" with their standard of living -- rather the median income, declining. We never as a nation in 200 years ever experienced that.

    And then, two, they get whacked by a recession, the worst ever.

    And then the president gets into office. Now, if you think those two precedents had nothing to do with how people felt about their economic security and insecurity, I've got a bridge over the Tigris River you can buy.

    So there's a lot of factors that go into this, and it's not he showed up and all of a sudden this partisanship arrived on the Capitol steps, OK? So anybody that says that, I don't quite understand where they're coming from.

    That partisanship was fueled by an economic dislocation that had been happening for a long time, over the last decade. Then was whacked by a severe recession, which means then you had to make a series of tough choices that weren't going to make a lot of people happy about transition.

    And then you had him, which is also true about how people felt about -- I mean, a little more potency to it -- about Bill Clinton. I went through a period of time with Bill Clinton. I don't remember that had a lot of wine and roses. …

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    Bipartisanship is a very important part of what he promises, of what he hopes for.

    Yes.

    Is there a debate about how to accomplish that when you all get to Washington? ... If you can, talk a little bit about the thought about that wonderful phrase, "You campaign in poetry but govern in prose." What was the reality when it came to this ideal, this hope of bipartisan action?

    Let me begin by saying that this ideal was grounded in his experience as a state senator in Springfield. There, even as a very junior state senator, he was often sent to negotiate with the Republicans on all kinds of issues, and the reason why he was sent was that he was very good at figuring out what's that common ground.

    So his party leaders would say, "Senator, you go and negotiate with the Republicans, and let's figure out whether we can come up with a bipartisan package that's good for Illinois." He was extraordinarily successful at that.

    The difference, I think, when we came to Washington, was that in Illinois, you may have disagreed about ideology or policy, but everybody there actually wanted to improve the state of Illinois. What he encountered here in Washington was people who were willing to put our country's interests aside for their short-term political agenda, and rather than be willing to negotiate with him, they just simply said no.

    And if you look at the president's agenda over the last three and a half, almost four years, many of his initiatives that he put forward have been bipartisan, have been ones that historically had the support of the Republicans.

    Even the stimulus bill, the Recovery Act, his first piece of legislation he passed, a third of what was in there were tax cuts, and that's something that has always been supported by the Republican Party.

    So he came to the table with a bipartisan approach, but he was met with, "Let's just say no." And so it's hard for you to be bipartisan when the other party isn't willing to negotiate.

    How surprising was that to him?

    I think it was disappointing. I think it was disappointing, particularly given how high the stakes were, particularly because if you think back at the time when he became president, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month. We lost 4 million jobs in the last six months of the Bush administration. The financial systems were on the verge of collapse. Our auto industry was tanking, on collapse as well. Our economy was really hanging in the abyss here.

    With stakes that high, you would think that people would say, "All right, we have to come together; we have to come up with common solutions," and they didn't.

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    Some opponents will say he was naive. Some people will say that Hillary Clinton made a couple speeches about how that's not the way Washington works. You know, when you go to Washington, basically, you have to play hardball. What's your response? What's the president's response to that attitude?

    I think if you look at his track record over the first term, he's gotten an awful lot done using his approach. He wasn't willing to come to Washington and just be like everybody else; he was determined to do it differently.

    And although he has reached out and tried very hard to be bipartisan, he's also been willing to go it alone when he couldn't get the kind of support he needed.

    If you think about comprehensive immigration reform, that's something that he talked about a great deal during the campaign, something that he was committed to during his first few years here -- and is still committed to doing -- but when it was clear that we couldn't even get support for the DREAM [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors] Act, he was willing to do what he could by executive action.

    I think his view is, "Look, I'm going to try to be bipartisan; that's who I am; I think that's best for the country." We have a two-party system here. It reflects the values of our country, and people elected their representatives to come and recognize the fact that you can't just do it your way when you have a whole part of the country that might want to do it a different way.

    So I think that philosophy is what has driven him, and I don't think that it's naive at all. I think that great change can happen doing it that way. And if you look at where we were when the president took office compared to where our economy is now, compared to the fact that we have the Affordable Care Act passed, when you look at the fact that we were able to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, many of the challenges that he took on were ones where if he had done it the conventional way, it would never have gotten done.

    Is there a feeling that the power of the presidency is less so than what was expected? Is that the reality of how it works?

    I think he walked into this job with a very clear idea of how difficult it would be and the fact that the Washington establishment was extremely entrenched, and that it would be challenging.

    I think he was surprised, given the magnitude of our problems, that people weren't willing to step up to their responsibility fully and tackle those problems. But I think that, again, looking at everything he's accomplished, doing it his way worked really very effectively.

    And he's still willing to continue trying to reach out even though it has been clear over the last three and a half years, almost four years that their approach has been "Just say no." It hasn't changed him in any way.

    He still is determined to keep pushing, because he thinks that's what the American people want. He actually thinks that the American people want their representatives to work together and to do what's fair and what's balanced, where everybody in their country gets a fair shot and everybody plays by the same set of rules. I think that basic tenet of fairness is what the American people want. So he's here to do their bidding, to do what they elected him to do, and he will continue to do that as long as he's in office.

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    David Axelrod   Senior strategist, Obama 2012 campaign

    (Text only) He was a senior White House political adviser until 2011, when he left to serve as a senior strategist on Obama's re-election campaign. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 26, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    The midterm loss, describe how Obama viewed it. What did it change? ...

    It was obviously a sobering outcome the midterm; you couldn't descrie it any other way. And he was very unhappy and sad about the loss of so many, but there were particular members for whom he had enormous respect who had lost their seats, and he was anguished about that.

    That said, the day after the vote, we had a meeting at the White House, ... and the president began by saying: "We got our butts kicked, and there's no doubt about it. But we can't spend a whole lot of time here gnashing our teeth and wringing our hands, because we've got a lame-duck session coming up, and I've got a long list of things that we need to get done."

    And indeed he did, and we all looked at each other and said, "What's he talking about?" I mean, everyone was sort of skeptical that in this environment you could, but he was absolutely committed to getting something done, even in the wake of this electoral disaster. And we wound up having the most productive lame-duck session in the history of the Congress.

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    David Axelrod   Senior strategist, Obama 2012 campaign

    (Text only) He was a senior White House political adviser until 2011, when he left to serve as a senior strategist on Obama's re-election campaign. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 26, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    So he did not see the election as a rebuff of his attitudes, his theories about bipartisanship?

    I think he had an understanding of the frustrations that people were feeling. He also had a sense of his responsibilities as president to continue to try and solve problems and not to brood in a political setback.

    And so he focused on some absolutely imperative things we had to get done, particularly given the economic situation. So extending tax cuts and making sure they were in place, unemployment insurance, and taking other steps that were crucial at that moment. In addition, we passed the START [Strategic Arms Reduction]Treaty, [repealed] Don't Ask Don't Tell, and a number of other things, child nutrition bill, I think, all in that period.

    I think he was sobered by the result. It certainly was cause for reflection, but it wasn't cause for paralysis, and he was very much determined that we weren't going to be paralyzed by it.

    So your answer to people who say that Obama never brought to bear the tough-stances tools, the Chicago brass knuckle-type of politics, nor was he able to be the backslapper of Congress, to win people over like LBJ. What's your view on that?

    You can't have it both ways. You can't argue on the one hand that he suffered a dramatic defeat in 2010 in the midterm elections because he had governed in a less partisan way and had forced his will and done too many things without bipartisan support, and then argue that he can't get things done.

    He got a lot of things done, and he did it without Republican support, because the Republicans had a blood pact not to support him on any major issue. And the choice was to do nothing or to do something with the tools you had and the majority that you had. He chose to do that. And I believe it was the right thing to do.

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    David Axelrod   Senior strategist, Obama 2012 campaign

    (Text only) He was a senior White House political adviser until 2011, when he left to serve as a senior strategist on Obama's re-election campaign. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 26, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    We're in the 2012 campaign now. ... Have his views about working with the GOP and Congress changed much? In a second term, if he wins, what changes?

    I think he's always going to be eager to work with whomever wants to work with him. But his first responsibility is to get things done for the American people, and he'll do that in any appropriate way he can.

    My hope is that when he wins this election, that the Republicans of goodwill on [Capitol] Hill -- and there are many -- will recognize that the policy of obstructionism was a failure and that the American people want greater cooperation, and that they'll [be] free to do that.

    But you know, what we can't do is decide for them what their leadership policy is going to be. That's something that voters in this country and members of that caucus will have to address.

    Have his basic views of Washington changed since four years ago?

    First of all, he had been in the Senate for several years. I don't think he had any illusions that it was going to be easy or quick work to try and change the nature of politics in Washington. No one could have imagined either the depths of the crisis we were going to walk into or the depths of the willingness of the folks on the other side to play politics on some of those issues. That was sobering for him.

    But he's a fundamentally positive person, and I believe that despite all of that, he always is going to leave the door open to cooperation. And the question is whether we can, how many we can compel to walk through that door.

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