Adviser anticipates close races, suggests “you stay up for the full night” on CNN Tuesday.
From CNN’s John King, USA:
JOHN KING, HOST, “JOHN KING USA”: With just two weeks until the midterm elections, President Obama is turning to radio and TV to get his message out, and there will be plenty of presidential traveling.
Here to talk about the election end game from the White House perspective is the president’s top political adviser, senior White House adviser, David Axelrod.
David, thanks for joining us.
DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Thank you.
KING: I’m going to ask you a broad question first, to put on your old political strategist hat, not so much your Obama hat. You know how these things work. We’re going into the president’s first midterm election — always tough for the president’s in power.
And for all the noise, all the polling, all the ads we’re going to see in the last two weeks, there are usually two things, historically, that are safe to watch as predictors of an election.
One is the president’s approval rating. In our latest poll, 45 percent approve, 52 disapprove of the president’s performance.
The other thing is how do people feel about the direction of the country. And Gallup says it now adds a historic low — 21 percent of Americans are satisfied with the direction of the country.
If you were sitting at your desk in Chicago, not working for the president of the United States right now, would you not be convinced that the Republicans are going to at least take the House of Representatives?
AXELROD: Well, first of all, John, there’s another number that you haven’t cited and that makes this a kind of idiosyncratic election, and that is, the standing of the Republican Party.
Back in 1994, when the Republicans had a banner year and took over the House, they were really highly rated by the American people, near 60 percent on election day. Today, the Republicans in Washington and Congress are rated more — lower than the — the Democrats in Congress.
So there’s not this strong sense that somehow the Republican Party has great answers. They don’t. They want to take us backward to the same policies that got us into this mess. They’re certainly benefiting from a deluge of special interest money and from, you know, banks and insurance companies and — and oil companies and the like, and that will help them.
But I think that you’ll see, all across the country, Democrats winning in places that, you know, were written off. And just today we saw a poll in Pennsylvania where Joe Sestak had been trailing and is now — is now marginally ahead in that race. I think that momentum has shifted in that race.
So I think that it’s going to be more interesting election night than perhaps — perhaps you do sitting at that desk.
KING: Well — well, help me out. What will you be looking for as someone who knows the country quite well?
Here’s what I’d say. I’ll look on election night and see if Deval Patrick can win reelection in Massachusetts. If the Republicans come back and win that race, it will tell me that Republicans are in for a big night coast-to-coast.
What will David Axelrod be looking for as the first results come in from the East Coast states?
AXELROD: Well, of course, I’ll be watching that race, as well, because Deval is an old client of mine. I think he’s a spectacular person and a great governor. Massachusetts, though, had elected Republican governors for 16 years before he arrived.
So it’s a competitive — it’s a competitive race here. But I am going to be looking at that race in — in Pennsylvania as a, you know, as an East Coast harbinger of the kind of night it’s going to be.
And, you know, as we move west, we’ll be looking at — at some of the places the president has visited. The Ohio governor’s race is a really interesting race. I think that Governor Strickland has rallied and is running a great campaign there. We’ll be eager to see that. It’s an important state —
KING: So if Joe —
AXELROD: A —
KING: — if Joe Sestak loses in Pennsylvania and Ted Strickland loses in Ohio, are you going to climb under the desk?
AXELROD: No. I — as I said, I think you’re going to see an — an election where, you know, people win who perhaps you didn’t expect to win, people lose who — who, perhaps, you didn’t expect to lose on — on both sides.
So I — I mean what I would suggest to you is you — you stay up for the full night and — and total it up at the end. You know, we — if, for example, Jerry Brown can withstand, you know, what will probably end up being $200 million of spending by his opponent and get elected governor of California, that will be a big victory in the nation’s largest state.
If Alex Sink down in Florida can win — and she’s leading right now — win the — the governorship of Florida, that will be a big victory for the Democratic Party. So I think it’s going to be a more interesting night than perhaps some.
KING: One of the things the president is trying to do — and you’re trying to do it from your perch at the White House in the final two weeks, is to gin up excitement and turnout among traditional base voters, specifically African-American voters. The president is on the radio, he’s done a number of events, including a couple with Michelle Obama, the first lady.
I want you to listen to Democratic pollster, Cornell Belcher, a friend, someone who helped elect this president back in 2008. He was on the program last night and he had some concerns. He says it’s great to try to turnout African-Americans now. His question was, where has the leadership been for the past 20 months?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CORNELL BELCHER, POLLSTER: I’m going to go rogue for — for a moment here on — on my party, as I — as I do from time to time.
Look, we’ve done a fairly poor job of engaging our base. It’s a problem we’re going to have to fix down the line. We’ve got to grow more diverse inside that room, that strategic room of the Democratic Party, in order to engage these voters. We have not done that, and we may pay the price for it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: It sounds almost odd that he is making the point that under our first African-American president, in his view, there are not enough people of color and diversity making the key political decisions.
Is he right?
AXELROD: Well, I don’t know if Cornell has been deeply involved in helping us devise our strategy. And I have a great deal of confidence in him. I think he may be diminishing himself when he said that and he shouldn’t. He’s made a great contribution.
But look, we’ve been trying to deal with some epic economic problems in this country over the last 20 months, and many of them have visited minority communities with a greater vengeance than anywhere else and that’s been our first order of business. We haven’t been simply running for office. We’ve been trying to move this country forward and get it out of the ditch that it’s been in.
And a lot of the things that we’ve done, whether it’s education reform or — or college assistance or health reform or — or — or some of the initiatives to spur small business lending in communities that were hard hit, all of these things are going to have an impact in — in minority communities and all our communities.
And so our focus, I think, has properly been on trying to deal with the problems that are plaguing people in their lives. I wish we had more time and — and had been able to spend more effort campaigning around the country, but that’s not what people elected us to do in a time of crisis and we’ve fulfilled our obligations and our responsibilities.
KING: A man who served in the White House under George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, wrote an op-ed piece in “The Washington Post” today under the headline, “Obama the Snob.” And he used a quote from the president at a Democratic fundraiser recently in Massachusetts, where the president said, “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and fact and science and argument do not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly and we are scared and the country is scared.”
He went on to make the case that that was arrogant, that the president was saying that people out there who think Washington is spending too much money or people out there who think the president should have focused on jobs from the get go and maybe not health care so early on, that it was an insult to them.
Do you see it that way? Is the president a snob?
AXELROD: No. I think the president was stating what is obvious, which is this has been a very tough time.
The policies that Mr. Gerson worked so hard to put in place in the Bush administration created an economic disaster that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, and we’ve been about the business of trying to deal with the aftermath of that. It created devastation — millions of jobs lost, millions of homes lost, people lost their savings. And there is — there is the aftermath of that that has impacted on people across the country. So, of course that enters into how people — how people view things, and I think that’s — that’s obvious.
Now, in terms of focusing on the economy, I wish we had had — you know, one of the things that I — I always think back to is the day that the president went up to Capitol Hill to talk to the Republican House Caucus about where we should go with the Recovery Act. And on the way up there, they released a statement saying they were going to vote unanimously against it before he even had a chance to talk to them.
So I wish Mr. Gerson would use his influence as a Republican strategist and operative to speak to the leaders of his own party about getting together and working together to solve the problems of this country.
KING: You have been at the president’s side throughout the campaign and the past 20 months, 21 months now, in governing. Peter Baker of “The New York Times” wrote a Sunday magazine piece about the education of the president, and he wrote this, “Some White House aides who were ready to carve a new spot on Mount Rushmore for their boss two years ago privately concede now that he cannot be another Abraham Lincoln after all. In this environment, they have increasingly concluded it may be that every modern president is going to be, at best, average.”
Have you lost your idealism, David Axelrod? Are you one of those people?
AXELROD: Not in the least. Not in the least.
Now, first of all, let me say, I never — I never had my chisel out to carve his image in Mount Rushmore. And I — you know, I had realistic expectations.
I do have great admiration for the president. I think he’s provided strong leadership in a very difficult time. He’s working very hard to solve problems that he — that he walked into that have plagued this country for some time.
And — and so, you know, but I — you know, my feeling is that it is a great privilege to be here and trying to deal with those problems and fight your way through some of the noise of this town to get it done.
But I — I still believe that each day — look, I — I’ll give you the one example, John. I have a child with a — a chronic condition. My family almost went broke because of her medical condition and the bills we couldn’t pay and because the insurance company wouldn’t pay for them. And on the night the we passed that health bill, I — I realized that families with kids with preexisting conditions wouldn’t have to go through what I went through. It’s hard not to feel good about that. And there are many, many examples like that.
So, you know that there’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of activity now, political activity, there’s a lot of back and forth. But at the end of the day, that’s what this is about and that’s why we do the work.
KING: You make that personal point about your family story and your daughter’s struggle and your family’s struggle.
When you hear Republicans in this campaign say that if they get the majority in the House and in the Senate, one of the things they’re going to do is try to repeal most of the health care law, what goes through your mind? And what is the president’s message back to them?
AXELROD: Well, I think they’re going to have to explain that to the millions and millions of families with children with preexisting conditions who now are going to be able to get health care for them or the people being thrown off of their insurance simply because they’re seriously ill, kids who are up to 26 years old who can now get coverage because of what we’ve done on their parents’ insurance, who couldn’t get it before; seniors who are getting more help with their prescription drugs. They’ll have to explain to them why they want to take that away and hand all that authority back to insurance company bureaucrats.
I think it’s hard case, just as I think their promise to repeal Wall Street reform, financial reform, is a hard case to make —
KING: So do you —
AXELROD: I don’t think that’s where the American people want to go. They want us to work together to solve the problems facing our country —
KING: Do you see the next —
AXELROD: — and our economy.
KING: Do you see the next two years as a series of vetoes and confrontation? Or do you think all this rhetoric will pass after the election and assuming there are a lot more Republicans in town, we don’t know how many, that there will be some effort at genuine compromise?
AXELROD: Well, John, that remains to be seen. We certainly are going to make that effort. As we’ve said from the beginning, we want to work with anyone who wants to work with us to solve the problems of this country.
You know, the hope is that with more members — I believe we’re going to retain control, but there will be more Republicans here, everybody acknowledges that — with more members will come more — a greater sense of responsibility. They’ve sat out the last couple of years, kind of — well, trying to score political points instead of working with us to solve problems.
We hope to work together in the future and it remains to be seen, but that’s — that’s our goal and that’s what we’re going to pursue.
KING: Let me ask you, lastly, the Pentagon said today that if you are a gay or a lesbian American, feel free to enlist in the armed services and feel free to be open about your sexuality.
Because of the pending court challenges, because of the uncertainty in Congress, if you were a gay or a lesbian American, would you be willing to take that risk?
AXELROD: Well, I think it’s — there is uncertainty about the court case and so that is a cautionary note that people should — should feel.
But the one thing that I will tell you, John, is this president has made a commitment, and it’s not a question of whether that program, whether that policy will change, but — but when. We’re at the end of a process with the Pentagon to — to make that transition and we’re going to see it through.
KING: David Axelrod is the president’s senior adviser and a very busy man two weeks from election day. David, appreciate your time.
AXELROD: Thank you, John.