Earlier today I attended a White House press briefing with David Axelrod. The other attendees were all new media types representing center-left organizations. It was billed as a blogger roundtable. The entire transcript can be read below the fold.
Now, here are the questions on Social Security from today’s roundtable. The questions are in italics:
The answers that we received are not answers that will make anyone entirely happy. Here is what I took from them:
Moving on from Social Security, another takeaway from the roundtable is that the White House views the budget as the top political fight of 2011. Here is a question I did not ask:
In 2011, the budget is the thing.
A recurring theme in the discussion was Axelrod not being very forthcoming on policy specifics. From questions on campaign finance, to gun control, to Afghanistan, to the upcoming House vote on the so-called “No Taxpayer Funded Abortion Act,” Axelrod did not announce, or clarify, Obama administration position on pretty much anything. One possible exception came on a process question asked by Greg Sargent near the end of the roundtable (emphasis mine):
Those were easily the most vehement words we saw from Axelrod during the entire discussion.
The entire transcript is in the extended entry.
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
Internal Transcript January 26, 2011
BLOGGER ROUNDTABLE WITH SENIOR ADVISOR DAVID AXELROD
AND DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL BRIAN DEESE
Roosevelt Room 3:41 P.M. EST
MR. AXELROD: So there’s no point in -- I mean, you guys saw the speech, so we don’t have to go over it in detail. I think what was noteworthy about it was that it was quite different than the normal State of the Union speech. The President really wanted to address in detail one issue, which is how do we think about the economy of the future, how do we create opportunity, how do we keep this American project going so that people can have confidence in the future, as he has confidence in the future, and what are the things that we have to do, as he says, to win that future as past generations have done for us.
It was an odd -- not odd, I shouldn’t say -- odd is the wrong word, but it was -- not only was the speech unusual but the occasion was unusual, unusual because of the different makeup in the Congress since the last time he addressed them, but also different, obviously, because of the events in Tucson, the tragic events in Tucson.
So just as one who was sitting in the hall, I was struck by -- having gone through several of those things where there was a lot of cheerleading and kind of fraternity/sorority howling and hooting, this was a much more sober environment. I think this co-mingling was confusing to people, but probably wholesome in many ways because the President wanted to give a reflective speech, and this environment allowed that.
I think the American people received it that way. They received it as a focused, serious treatment of the thing that they’re most concerned about in their daily lives, and that is so central to what’s on everybody’s mind.
So we are very pleased with it. The President said what he wanted to say and he said it the way he wanted to say it. He joined the debate in several different ways, and we are looking forward to the discussion that ensues in the coming weeks on some of -- and months on some of these issues.
So with that very brief introduction, I’m happy to take any questions. Did you introduce, Jesse, Brian Deese?
MR. LEE: No, I didn’t, sorry.
MR. AXELROD: Brian is one of my colleagues from the NEC, and he’s actually a really good guy to know, because he’s like one of the smartest guys in this building and one of the most effective and sort of a go-to guy for all of us when we want clear, understandable answers. To the extent that you’re looking for clear, understandable answers, he’s a good guy to know. If you want meandering and confusing answers, I’m your man. (Laughter.)
So, anyway. Do you have anything to add to what I said?
MR. DEESE: No, no.
MR. AXELROD: Yes.
Q Bill Scher with Campaign for America’s Future. As you know, Campaign was pretty pleased with what the President said -- the President had to say about Social Security last night, although noting that the door is still open with some changes to the program.
I was curious, what is the polling telling the White House and telling you as his political advisor how best to approach Social Security? Our polling is showing there’s been a lot of opposition to raising the retirement age, for example. But is your polling telling you anything similar or different in how that will inform the President going forward?
MR. AXELROD: Well, I think all of that is pretty consistent. What informed his thinking on this is that what is true is that in the long term there are issues on the horizon relative to Social Security, as you know, because you’re obviously a student of research. Among younger Americans, there’s a profound suspicion that Social Security isn’t even going to be there. And among older Americans, there’s a great deal of anxiety about tampering with it.
And our goal is to make sure that the program is strong and secure. The President laid out his principles last night, and we’re willing to have a discussion, but those principles are going to inform the discussion.
Q Speaking of those principles -- I’m Chris Bowers with Daily Kos.
MR. AXELROD: How you doing?
Q I’m doing good. President Obama came out in opposition to benefit cuts and also to privatization. Would he still be willing to talk about those as part of a bipartisan solution, or is he more inclined to veto any bipartisan deal that includes either benefit cuts or privatization?
MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think that -- as I said, I think his interest is in seeing the program strengthened, and there are certain things that are not just non-starters for him but I think many, many members of Congress, and that includes privatization, which Congressman Ryan has opposed, for example.
But I don’t think -- I mean, this is a delicate time because I don’t think you want to start pre-negotiating or pre-discussing issues to the point where people say, well, there’s no point in even sitting down and talking about this stuff. So I’m not going to, here, start parsing the President’s words and so on.
I will say this. I don’t think -- there’s not going to be a bipartisan agreement for him to veto. I think if there’s a bipartisan agreement that it’s going to be hammered out around the principles that he articulated last night or it’s probably not going to move forward. Just the nature of the issue.
So we’ll see what ensues from here.
Q You said that the President is speaking to the number one issue of concern to Americans. But it seemed to me it was a speech that was very much focused on the long term. Do you think that it might have invited some confusion between the short-term and long-term situation? I mean, for example, recruiting a new cohort STEM instructor to then teach children who 20 years from now will be smarter and innovating -- I mean, that doesn’t help someone who’s 45 and unemployed.
MR. AXELROD: Of course, yes. I would say two things about that. One is that the President made very clear, pretty close to the top of the speech, that we have short-term and long-term challenges and that the actions that we took in December relative to taxes -- cutting the payroll tax, 100 percent expensing so people can write off -- businesses can write off the investments they make this year -- the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit -- all the things that we did in December were aimed at accelerating economic growth and hiring in this year. And most of the outside analysts who’ve talked about the impact of that have said that that will help, perhaps to the tune of as much as a million jobs.
So we think there’s natural momentum -- we’re gaining natural momentum here. This should accelerate that momentum. But it’s also true that we’ve been through -- well, let me say a second thing before I talk about the long term. The other thing is, one of the things the President talked about last night was not just about educating young people but he also talked about upgrading our community colleges and making sure that people have the training they need not just as kids but also throughout their work life, because not just now but in the future people are going to be switching jobs often and they’re going to need more skills to do the jobs that are available. We need to make sure that our community colleges, which are a great undervalued asset and an important asset, are producing people -- are producing -- are able to help people acquire those skills for those jobs. And I think that can have an effect.
But we also have to be honest about some of the structural changes that have happened in the economy, and one of the impacts of this very, very profound recession that we’ve been through is that businesses have rationalized their operations and people have been squeezed out. And so -- and that is a big concern. And it’s not an easy problem to solve. We’re hoping that the tax -- some of the tax stuff will get things going. The infrastructure that we’re talking about should help provide opportunities for some of those who’ve lost their job.
But over the long term, we have to be training young people and older people and retraining for these emerging industries and jobs that will be more plentiful if we also invest in research and development and innovation.
So we have to -- the President said a long time ago, I think during the campaign of 2008 when he was asked about whether he was going to suspend his campaign during the Lehman Brothers crisis, he said the President has to be able to do two things at once. Well, a country has to be able to do many things at once. We have to deal with the short-term issues as aggressively as we can, but we also have to plan ahead, because if we don’t we’re just going to bounce from one crisis to the next.
MR. DEESE: Just to add very briefly on that, I mean, I think that just to pick up where Ax ended, that an investment in competitiveness theory of growth is, by its nature, balanced in things that are going to have a short-term impact and things that are going to have a long-term impact. And if you look at things like infrastructure and things like the National Export Initiative, those have a real potential over the next two years to not only create jobs but create economic activity to help fill the output gap that we’re still facing in the economy.
But if you don’t -- part of the theory behind a -- behind the economic strategy the President laid out is if you don’t at the same time start making the investments in things that are going to pay off three or four or five or eight or 10 years down the road today, then you undermine the effectiveness of those short-term investments too. Because if we invest -- if we make a bunch of investments in infrastructure but we don’t have -- we’re not investing in our community colleges so that we’ve got -- we make it easier to get products from the port to the company but we don’t -- we’re not taking -- giving those 45-year-olds an opportunity to train for the jobs that that company is going to -- may potentially have as a result, then it’s just -- you haven’t put forward a coherent strategy.
So I think what you saw was a coherent strategy event. Really there are a lot of short-term focuses building off of the momentum coming out of the tax deal, but it’s part of this -- it’s part of a coherent strategy.
Q You mentioned the next two years. How do you feasibly get the political support on the Hill and therefore the money to make the investments?
MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, he was very clear last night that even as we make these investments we have to do it in the context of a really significant fiscal challenge. And we have -- the freeze is going to require us to reallocate beneath that cap, spend on some things -- spend more on some things and less on others. And so we have to do this in a responsible way.
We have to go out -- and I understand that there is some skepticism on the other side, but part of what the President did last night and what he’s doing today in Wisconsin and what he’ll continue to do relentlessly is make the case for this growth agenda, for this strategy, to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the world.
And hopefully there will be public pressure and support on Democrats and Republicans to support this strategy. If you don’t support this strategy, then the question is what is your strategy? What is your strategy for growth? What is your prescription to see to it that -- what is your strategy to win the future?
I think people are going to be asking that question. And we have an answer.
Q I have a question about the clean energy stuff. I know that when I spoke to people, in the wind industry especially, they said we’ve kind of heard this before. What can we see different from Obama this time around as far as getting involved in policy and pushing for clean energy investment in a real way?
MR. AXELROD: Well, I mean, I’ll let Brian answer. I think we’ve done probably more than any administration has to promote renewable energy, and wind has been a big beneficiary of those efforts. But when you set a clean energy standard, an aggressive clean energy standard, as the President did yesterday, it’s obviously going to add impetus behind all forms of generation that meet that standard. And wind should be a beneficiary of that. You may want to add to that.
MR. DEESE: Yes, I mean, just -- I think specifically, again, if you look at it in the short term and long term, part of what the President secured in the tax package that he signed at the end of the year was an extension of a set of tax incentives that for the wind industry in particular was a real lifeline and we were able to include in that package an extension there. And so that’s an important, very tangible thing in the short run.
I think what you heard from the President last night was a pretty aggressive vision about how to lay the foundation for a long-term industry, because we talk -- when you talk to businesses, they say of course those short-term incentives are critical and without them you’d have cliffs where projects that are in the process don’t get done. But without the clarity and the certainty of a three- or a five- or an eight-year investment horizon, it’s just difficult to make big investments and big bets in the United States.
And so the clean energy standard is about achieving the emission reduction goals that are vitally important for our economy and for our environment, but it’s about creating the incentives and changing the equation for long-term investments. And I think that when people start to look under the hood at the overall goal that the President put forward, I think what they’re going to see is --
MR. AXELROD: Hopefully it’s an electric engine. (Laughter.)
MR. DEESE: -- you can see a pretty aggressive path which would for industries like wind and solar would really provide a degree of long-term certainty that they haven’t had.
And the only other thing that I would point to is he identified in the speech really what is an historic increase in clean energy basic research. And at the end of the day, for wind and solar and a number of these industries, the real path breakthrough, the breakthrough that really changes the equation in terms of cost competitiveness, is going to come from the types of basic research where you get people together and you ask them to solve a big, visionary challenge.
And that was a -- the President spent a decent amount of time last night talking about the potential of these types of energy innovation programs, some of which we already had up and running. And I think you’ll see more details in the budget, that that’s going to be a real priority for the administration, is making those types of investments, which for a relatively small amount of money the government could play a real catalytic role in helping boost the industry over the long term.
Q In the fact sheet on the State of the Union that reporters were given yesterday before the speech, it said that one of the things the President was going to talk about was the DISCLOSE Act, and then I noticed that it wasn’t in his speech. I was just wondering why it ended up not being included.
MR. AXELROD: Well, it’s not for any lack of enthusiasm about the issue because we feel very, very strongly about it and we’re going to continue to push for it. There are a number of things that got trimmed out at the end just because, to be brutally frank, as we ran through the speech it was fairly lengthy and we just cut it down. And as you know, there are a lot of issues that people are concerned about that we simply didn’t talk about in the speech just because we wanted to focus it as sharply as we could on the economy.
But there’s no doubt that the -- we saw in real time over the last campaign what the impact of this sort of unbridled and secret special interest corporate spending did in our elections, and it’s an insidious thing. And we will continue to fight that fight and people in Congress will hopefully have the chance to vote on this and put themselves on one side or the other.
I think most Americans -- I’m certain most Americans believe that whatever money is spent in our elections ought to be spent in the open and into the bright light of day. And so the President strongly believes that and we’re going to continue to work on that issue.
Q David, I took your class at Northwestern in 2004, you might remember.
MR. AXELROD: I’m glad to see you’ve overcome that. (Laughter.)
Q I believe I made it through. So a few other issues that didn’t come up in the speech -- gun control. There has been some talk you guys might address it at a later date.
MR. AXELROD: Yes. Yes, and there’s no doubt that he will.
Q Will he be giving a speech on it?
MR. AXELROD: I don’t know exactly how we’re going to approach it, but obviously these issues are out there and have been extenuated by the tragedy in Tucson. And so we will -- he will engage in that in that debate.
But, again, our strong feeling was that last night’s speech -- his strong feeling was that last night’s speech should be focused as much as possible on the economy. And so it wasn’t the typical State of the Union speech, which is generally like 70 one-off issues connected by some weak connective tissue. This was an argument and it was an argument about a specific challenge facing the country. And so that’s why it wasn’t there. But obviously this is an important issue and he’ll speak to it.
Q And in terms of -- just to follow up real quick, on -- I mean, if he was focused on the economy, why didn’t he address housing as a part of that?
MR. AXELROD: I mean, housing obviously is a concern and the state of the housing market is one of the things that continues to be a drag on the economy. And obviously a lot of people are still dealing -- and particularly in some parts of the country with the impacts of the housing crisis and declining home values. So that’s an issue on which we continue to work.
But he in this speech wanted to talk about the discrete areas of growth and job creation and the elements that go into it that are just absolutely essential to a long-term strategy. We’re going to be speaking more, and Brian can speak to this, on the issue of housing in the next few weeks.
MR. DEESE: Yes, I mean, the only other thing I would add to that -- and we will be spending more time on it as we go forward -- but the only other thing I would add to that is obviously housing, like a number of issues, is answered with -- intertwined with the overall pace of the macroeconomic recovery. It’s one of the clearest indicators in the housing markets and unemployment rates. So that’s not, in any way -- suggests that we don’t continue our focus that we’ve had since we got here on how to take steps, responsible steps, to help support the housing market, but, again, I think the overall economic recovery and the recovery of the housing market are going to be intertwined.
MR. AXELROD: Anything else you guys got?
Q Oh, political question about the speech. Greg Sargent from the Post.
MR. AXELROD: Yes, how are you doing?
Q How are you doing?
It seemed interesting that you combined the spending freeze with the doubling down on government investment and education and infrastructure. And I wondered what -- I mean, to what degree is that an effort to sort of reframe the discussion about the proper role of government at a time when Republicans are trying to interpret the election results as a mandate for slash and burn? Is there an effort there to sort of recast the argument in a big-picture way?
MR. AXELROD: I guess our interpretation of the mood of the American people is that they’re very much focused on jobs, economic security, on growth, on the prospects for their children. And that’s what we wanted to focus our attention on, because that’s where our attention is -- that’s where our concern is most focused too.
Obviously, controlling debt, dealing with our debt, dealing with spending is part of the equation, but it’s not the only part of the equation. And reducing the debt and dealing with spending is not in and of itself a growth strategy. And that’s where we may maybe have a philosophical difference.
The President doesn’t believe that it is enough simply to cut the budget or reduce the debt or reduce the size of government. In the world in which we live, if we do that and don’t educate our citizens and lead the world in that; if we don’t innovate; if we don’t have kind of basic infrastructure that we need to be competitive, then we’re not going to prevail.
And so as we cut, we’ve got to do it in a responsible way and make sure that we’re not cutting those very things that are going to allow us to continue to be a dominant economic force and create opportunity for our people.
So there’s a fundamental debate to be had here. We want to find ways to work together on this. We’re going to continue to look for ways to work together on this. But he feels very strongly about this. And last night was an explication of his view about how we move this economy forward.
Q Well, it seems like there’s going to be a real debate to be had between this invest-and-grow strategy and a cut-and-grow strategy, as Eric Cantor defines it, because they do not seem to be interested in investing in anything right now. How does that debate get driven over the course of the year? Are there specific legislative vehicles that you’re looking at? Are you looking at a clean energy standard, infrastructure bank, a multi-year transportation bill? Are there specific things that are already in mind that will advance this discussion, or is it going to stay more on a thematic plate for the White House waiting to see what the House puts on the table?
MR. AXELROD: Well, we have an obligation to put a budget forward, and we’re going to put a budget forward, and that budget is going to reflect the priorities that the President spoke to last night. It’s going to be a tough budget in terms of the kind of the decisions we have to make about what we can afford and what we can’t afford. But it’s going to reflect the priorities that he spoke to.
And presumably Congress is going to then turn their cards over and say how they would do it differently. And we can have a discussion, the American people can participate in that discussion, as to the priorities.
You can’t just swirl around in the land of the theoretical forever. We’ve got responsibilities. They’ve got responsibilities. We’re going to meet our responsibilities. And I trust they’ll meet theirs and say, no, these are not the priorities we support, and here’s what we would cut, we could cut back.
I mean, we’ve had this discussion for some time now. If, in fact, the idea is to cut education by 20 or 30 or 40 percent, that’s not a growth strategy. If your -- if the idea is to not move forward on innovation and research and development, not to move forward on energy, that’s not a growth strategy.
So I expect this debate to become engaged pretty quickly as we introduce our budget and as they respond to it, and hopefully present us with theirs.
Q Can I ask a follow-up?
MR. AXELROD: Well, Brian has a --
MR. DEESE: The one other thing that I was just going to say on that is part of our -- our rationale for laying out measures to restore fiscal responsibility over the medium and long term has an economic logic to it, which is that we need to invest in these priority areas. We won’t have long-term growth if we are fiscally irresponsible and we cannot keep the long-term trajectory in check.
I think the one aspect of this debate that the President also mentioned last night is that in the cut-and-grow area, we have to look for ways to work together but we also have to be honest about the fact that you cannot actually achieve fiscal responsibility and long-term deficit reduction by just cutting in narrow categories of spending.
And it’s also not a -- it’s not a deficit reduction strategy to cut spending dramatically in some areas while taking steps that would dramatically increase the deficit in others. So if you look at the combined impact of extending permanently the Bush high-income tax cuts, repealing health reform, and what the Republicans are -- some Republicans have suggested in terms of cuts, that’s a deficit-increase strategy.
And so overall what the President was trying to focus on last night is we do need to have a conversation about fiscal responsibility, but we need to have it on terms that are actually about what’s going to propel the economy forward, not just these narrow --
MR. AXELROD: Yes, I mean, just to -- and just to pick up on Brian’s point, I think everybody agrees that we have this challenge that we have to deal with, and it is an economic challenge at the end of the day, and that is to get this long-term debt down, to get these deficits down.
So that’s not the issue. The issue is how do you do it, and what choices do you make? Understanding that you’re going to have to make tough choices, what choices do you make?
As Brian points out, if you make the choice that you’re going to spend $70 billion on these upper-income tax cuts in perpetuity each year, as opposed to something else, that is a choice, that is a choice.
And so -- as I said, we are now going to move from the realm of the theoretical to the realm of the real and practical, and that will be a healthy and important debate.
Q My question was this. When I heard and read the speech, I took -- the President sort of -- his opening bid in this debate was freeze -- a spending cap at current levels for five years, and with the suggestion that he’s flexible to go below that if he can work with Congress to find areas to cut any further. The Republicans are saying they want to go about 20 percent below that to 2008 levels.
Does the President see a way, assuming the ability to move some of that money around at his discretion, to accomplish the goals that he laid out, if they get their way at that level of spending?
MR. DEESE: I think what you heard from the President was that his plan and his strategy for growing the economy will be embodied in a budget that freezes spending overall for five years.
I think that you’ll see -- and we all will have a chance to debate -- the choices and the trade-offs involved in putting a budget together like that. And I think that the President talked a little about it, and as the budget comes out there will be more details. But in order to make investments in areas of education and research and keep an overall freeze, you have to identify areas to cut, and we’re going to do that.
And I think that part of what -- just to -- at this point, as part of going from the theoretical to the real, is the folks who have said that they would like to return to 2008 levels will have an obligation to put down on the table how you actually do that. And I think at that point it will become much more real.
If you cut 20 percent across the board -- cutting education 20 percent across the board is not a sustainable economic strategy in the world that we live in. And if you protect education and you want to hit those same levels, then you’ve got to cut everything else substantially more than 20 percent. If you want to protect research, you’ve got to cut the rest even more than 30, 40, 50 percent.
And so they -- we will see when these plans become more real. But I think that one of the things that I think we’ll also see and I think you heard some from the President tonight is that freezing spending over five years is a tough thing to do. That’s a freeze in nominal terms, which means that as we have inflation, it means actual real cuts as we go forward.
The President is going to show in a serious credible way how to do that. We haven’t seen how to do the --
Q But can you -- has the budget team envisioned a way to -- clearly, there’s going to be a way that you guys see that you can do it at the levels that he’s going to propose, the President is going to propose. Can you envision a way to do it at a level that’s 20 percent of overall spending below that?
MR. AXELROD: Well, we don’t have to envision that right now because it’s not our proposal. We’re waiting for them to make -- they obviously envision it. And we’re waiting to see how that could be accomplished. Perhaps there’s something that we’re not thinking of.
Q So if Republicans come to you with a cap at current levels, rather than 2008, and they ring-fence education, infrastructure -- as suggested in the speech -- but they try to achieve that in part by refusing to fund the Dodd-Frank bill, health care implementation, things like that -- which I think is the rhetorical force of the 2008 levels ideas, to suggest that through the appropriations process they can essentially repeal the Obama administration --
MR. AXELROD: Yes.
Q -- that seemed to me to be to be consistent with the principles the President laid out, but an unlikely scenario as well.
MR. AXELROD: Yes, although I think in the body of the speech what he made clear was his strong belief in the health care law and the benefits that it’s already producing for millions of Americans. He spoke strongly about the -- some of the financial reforms and what they meant in terms of protecting the economic interests of everyday Americans.
I think implicit in that is that we can’t accept back-door efforts to undermine these fundamental protections for the American people. So I would not conclude in any way that we were opening the door to that, nor will we accept that.
What he said on health care was, if there are people who have constructive suggestions about how to strengthen it, we want to work with them -- Republican or Democrat. If there are problems with it that need to be fixed, such as the 1099 issue on -- as it relates to small businesses, we want to fix that.
But we’re not going to allow the budget process to be a back-door avenue to undermine the fundamental intent of the law.
Q David, there is somewhat of a perception in the last two years that you guys didn’t do enough to communicate what you were doing on the economy. Now that you’re leaving here, I mean, what have you learned from how difficult it is to communicate inside of Washington? What are you going to tell Plouffe when he gets here? And then how is that going to inform what you do when you’re in Chicago?
MR. AXELROD: I’m going to tell Plouffe, we’re doing great right now, don’t screw it up. (Laughter.)
Look, we came through the most ferocious recession since the Great Depression, and there’s no doubt that that had its communications challenges. We still have significant challenges, but they’re much different than they were when we arrived here two years ago and people were talking about -- serious people -- in very unsettling ways talking about the prospect of a potential second Great Depression. Because of some very difficult decisions that were made by the President and, frankly, the Congress during those first couple of years, we are in a different place.
And so that gives us an opportunity to communicate more effectively the larger story about where we’re going and to be able to get a hearing on it. And I think he’s done that well. He made a very strong speech in North Carolina in December. I think his speech last night was very clear -- a very clear picture and very much rooted in who we are as a country. He’s going to continue to do that.
The one thing that the President strongly believes and has communicated -- communicated very well last night is that while the problems we face are severe, we bring tremendous assets to that effort. And there is something about our country and about our people that has made us the success we are. And we need to draw on those assets in order to navigate through the challenges we have now and secure the future, and win the future.
And he’s going to continue to talk about that. But that was a harder message to deliver when we arrived here as a triage unit two years ago.
Q I was wondering if -- where the White House is on public opinion on Afghanistan. Because we’re seeing rising polls of dissatisfaction not only amongst liberals, but even amongst some conservatives -- Republicans and Tea Party activists.
I know during the Bush administration he said it was the media’s fault. If they just covered more good news, things would be okay. So I was just wondering how the White House is dealing with that? If you just think it will get better in July when troops start coming up? Or what you think of the public opinion?
MR. AXELROD: Well, I don’t think it’s surprising that given the challenges we have at home and the fact that we’ve been in Afghanistan for 10 years that -- and given the toll it’s taken and the cost of it, that people would be concerned and frustrated. But we also have an obligation and the obligation is to protect the American people, to protect national security. And there’s no doubt that there’s an ongoing threat that has to be dealt with.
The President arrived. There wasn’t much of a strategy relative to Afghanistan for seven years. He went through a rigorous process. He’s pursuing a strategy, and that strategy is on track so that come next July we’ll begin to draw down.
And we can’t -- one thing that you cannot do on issues of this gravity is adjust your strategy based on the daily Gallup poll. That wouldn’t be responsible and it wouldn’t be right.
What you do have to do is have a realistic strategy that has an endpoint to it. The President does have such a strategy, and now it’s important to execute on it. And that’s what we’re going to do.
Q Next week the House is going to pass a bill called the No Taxpayer-funded Abortion Act. And there’s a not insignificant chance it will pass the Senate as well. What would President Obama do if that got to his desk?
MR. AXELROD: Well, you know it is unfortunate that the health care debate has now shifted there. We’ve got a lot of challenges that we need to deal with, primary challenges that we’re facing -- the economy -- and the President outlined some of them last night. Obviously this is a very divisive issue. And one would hope that we don’t take that path and repeat old debates and divisions to the exclusion of dealing with things that are so fundamental right now for the country on which there’s some consensus.
So I haven’t seen -- I don’t know what exactly will pass Congress. Obviously, his position on this issue is well known. And we believe that it was addressed responsibly in the health care bill in the first place. But I mean, I just don’t know what’s coming, so it would probably be precipitous of me to say -- to even accept your hypothesis that it’s going to arrive.
MR. DEESE: I think now we’ve gotten two questions from everybody, except for Greg and Monica. If I’m wrong, pipe up, but --
Q Yes, I have another question, actually. Politically, you don’t just have to deal with Congress. You have a lot of governors and state houses openly hostile to state spending, and also the idea of government money coming in, even though they actually take it. But what do you do to kind of maintain a national vision on growing the economy when you have states that don’t want to invest on their own or are hostile to that idea?
MR. AXELROD: Yes. I mean, the best thing -- we want to work with governors of both parties to the degree that we can and they’re willing, because at the end of the day, every state, or virtually every state, is facing fiscal problems. We continue to have challenges related to employment. And we need to be aggressive about trying to address those. And so we hope they’ll join us in these strategies.
And one thing that I would say is that we want also to give them flexibility in helping to develop those strategies. One of the hallmarks of the Race to the Top education program was that we provided an impetus to raise standards, but it was the governors -- Republicans and Democrats -- who responded by developing them on their own.
So we want to work with the governors to do this. But I think it’s a self-defeating strategy to turn your back on things that can grow, that can produce -- that can produce jobs and growth. I think of the factory the President was at today in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I know there’s a new governor in Wisconsin, and I know that he has own views on these things. But there were tax incentives that helped make growth -- the growth of this factory, which is now on the cutting edge, possible. This was an abandoned factory where hundreds of people are working today.
That’s not a vision we should turn our backs on. That’s a prescription for success in the future. And we have to keep going out there and making the case to the American people. And hopefully, the American people, in their individual states, will make that case to their governors and we can move them on some of this, those who are resistant.
Q The big New York Magazine piece that had you getting up and checking your BlackBerry at 3:00 a.m., it had some pretty interesting stuff in there about -- he seemed to really be pretty plugged in in his reporting. It had some interesting stuff in there about sort of the introspection that’s gone on after the loss in November. And the suggestion was that you guys don’t view him as moving to the center so much as getting back to who he really is. And I wondered if you could talk about the degree to which there’s been this kind of introspection and conclusion about --
MR. AXELROD: Yes, I’m not going to change the nature of this town and the nature of our politics. And part of what we do -- and I’m part of the political community too, okay, so this -- put this down in the category of self-flagellation as well. But we tend to sit on the back of the truck and look at what happened before, and then define what’s happening now in the context of what happened some other time.
So, Bill Clinton repositioned himself to the center, and that’s the prescription for what you do and so on. I guarantee you -- I give you, as God is my witness, my word that we have not had a repositioning discussion here. We have not talked about let’s move three degrees to the right. That’s not the way we view this.
Q That’s exactly what I would have thought.
MR. AXELROD: That’s not the way we view this. It is true that -- my reaction to the election is we have to go back to first principles and really think about what it is that drives us and what it is that has been so central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook, because some of that has been sort of ground down in the minutia of day-to-day governing here.
And it’s important to project your principles and not just your plans, because the plans don’t mean anything unless people know where you’re going. And so, I mean, there’s nothing that the President said last night that I couldn’t draw a straight line from to speeches that he has made way back to 2004.
I got a reporter’s inquiry -- in fact, I’m glad we’re having this discussion, because I forgot to return the call. But the inquiry was, the President seemed very optimistic and he seemed to be talking about American exceptionalism last night, and is this a reaction to the elections? And I said, go back to his convention speech in 2004.
Do you know when the President got the call that he was going to give the keynote speech at the convention in 2004, I was with him. We were driving in a car in downstate Illinois, on some dark road somewhere with bad cell service. So we had to call back and confirm that he actually was going to be the keynote speaker, because the call got dropped. And one more argument for improving our -- but he -- and the first thing he said was, I think what I want to do is wrap my story in the larger American story and talk about what it is that makes us who we are.
And it’s something that he believes deeply in, and it’s what he talked about last night. And I don’t think anybody who covered that campaign viewed him in a particularly ideological way. I mean, one of the things -- and he has talked about this before. I mean, he -- there’s no doubt he is progressive in his outlook and that’s what he believes in.
But he has never been particularly dogmatic. That was true in the legislature. It was true when he was in the Senate. He has always been willing and able to work across party lines and find areas on which people could work together. His fundamental view is you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.
And so there was no sort of grand repositioning -- there was no -- there was just a desire to a) make sure that we leave with our principles, and b) look for opportunities, particularly in the new world in which we were living, to find those areas on which we can agree and move the country forward. And that’s what we did during that lame duck session. That’s what he wants to do now.
So, I said to someone the other day, that the people out there in America aren’t saying, gee, I wonder -- he seems like he is four degrees to the right now and this is good and so on. And they want to know not whether he is moving left or right, but whether the country is going to move up or down. I mean, that’s their concern. And we want to constantly present a vision and work toward it, to give people confidence that we’re going to move up as a country, that we’re moving up and not down.
But I’m not going to defeat this, Greg, so I don’t expect to -- I mean, you know, everything -- I mean, I had a politician in this town say to me, after the speech in Tucson, a Democrat politician, “Boy, that was a great speech.” I can see he is really thinking about re-election. And I’m thinking, what are you talking about? Because I spoke to the President before and after that speech, and I’ll tell you what he was thinking about more than anything else. He was speaking about a nine-year-old girl who was about the same age as his girl. And he was pretty broken up about it. And all he wanted to do was speak to that moment.
But everything in this town gets evaluated in that way, and that’s just the way it is. But anybody who says that, I will give them a volume of Barack Obama speeches going back many, many years, and I will defy them to say, where has he changed? Where is he different? Where is his basic approach different than it was when he started on this journey five and six and seven years ago?
Q So you’re looking forward to getting out of here --
MR. AXELROD: No. Look, I mean, when I think about -- when I think about Washington, I think about what my mother used to say to me when I was a kid. She used to say, “I love you, I just hate the things you do.” (Laughter.) I mean, I think that -- I’ve made associations in this town that I will value and treasure for the rest of my life. I expect to be in -- I’m keeping a place here. I expect to be in here quite a bit. And I actually have seen -- I’ve seen the worst of politics and I’ve seen the best of politics. So I think people have done some very courageous things in the last two years, at a time of maximum peril for the country.
So I’m not -- I didn’t come in here as an ingénue, so I’m not leaving here disappointed in any way. But it is noteworthy that the conversation in Washington is sometimes profoundly different than the conversation in the rest of the country. So what I am looking forward to is being out and about more, so that I’m not tone deaf and that all I’m listening is not the cacophony of sounds here in Washington.
Q How is Rahm holding up?
MR. AXELROD: He is doing pretty well. You’d be surprised. I spoke to him just before I came in here. He is obviously waiting for the Illinois Supreme Court to finish its contemplation and issue a judgment on this. But I’ve worked with Rahm. It’s a weird thing. You wouldn’t expect it, but I’ve worked with him, and for him, when he was a candidate for Congress in 2002. It was a really competitive race, and he was as calm as could be. Somehow he is more worked up when he is working on other people’s campaigns, but he is not -- than he is when he is the candidate. I can’t explain it. But he is in kind of a zone where it’s kind of a Zen -- if you can believe, a Zen moment. It must be all that yoga.
So anyway, good to see you guys.