New Voices of Power: David Axelrod

INTERVIEW OF DAVID AXELROD, Senior Advisor to President Obama

Wednesday February 11, 2009

LOIS ROMANO: We saw a bumpy roll-out to the banking rescue plan. What happened?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think it was a bumpy roll-out because Wall Street was hoping for a complete answer to some really complex and expensive problems, and what Secretary Geithner laid out didnít meet those expectations, but he laid out a strategy that we think is going to work. In the coming weeks, heíll lay out tactics to support that strategy, and people will know exactly whatís expected of them and what our role will be as a government. And hopefully together, if everybody takes responsibility, we can solve this problem and move forward.

We need a strong, vibrant financial sector. We need to keep the capital flowing, so that businesses and families can get the loans that they need. Weíre committed to that.

MS. ROMANO: Barney Frank referred to it as "mumbo- jumbo" today. Do you think you should have had a few more details in it? Thatís what everybody seems to be angry about.

MR. AXELROD: Well, you know, weíre taking the long view. This problem wasnít--didnít come about in a day. Itís not going to be solved in a day, and I think in the coming weeks when the strategy--when the tactics to support the strategy are unveiled, I think people will be satisfied that this is a thoughtful, strong, appropriate way to approach the problem.

MS. ROMANO: Do you run the risk, though, that Wall Street will turn against the plan before you even get it out?

MR. AXELROD: Look, I think that the problems in the financial sector are serious. I think people in the financial sector have a real interest in seeing a solution. It may not be exactly the solution that they want. It may require more of them than theyíd like, but I think they have an interest in seeing a solution, and I think theyíll work with us on that solution.

But, you know, the day that TARP was announced, Wall Street had an enormous rally, and I donít think anybody is particularly satisfied with the way that all worked out. So we canít set our clock according to one-day reactions on the market. We have to take a long-range view on what itís going to take to get capital flowing in this country again.

MS. ROMANO: But you would agree that a one-day drop in the market and a one-day story can drive the news, drive the White House?

MR. AXELROD: Well, it can drive a White House.It may not drive ours

You know, one thing that weíve learned over the last couple of years is that this town can get in a frenzy very quickly about stories of the moment, but that the real story is written over time. And so we try and keep our heads about us and pursue what we think is the appropriate strategy, and thatís what we are going to do here.

MS. ROMANO: [Treasury] Secretary Geithner talked about having a stress test for banks. What happens to the banks that fail the stress test? Are they doomed for failure? Is the government writing their death sentence?

MR. AXELROD: Well, obviously, Iím going to let him fill in the details, but weíre committed to keeping the financial sector going, to keeping capital flowing in this country. Weíre not going to preside over a collapse, and that means weíre going to work with these financial institutions.

The Secretary talked yesterday about creating public-private partnerships to deal with some of the toxic assets that are at the root of this problem, and I know that he stands ready to work with the financial institutions.

Our goal is not to dry up capital. It is to get capital flowing again.

MS. ROMANO: Youíve talked about taking the long view. If the recovery plan is going to take up to 18 months to kick in, which is what I think youíve all said, how do you maintain public optimism and enthusiasm in these really hard times?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think that is a challenge, but the American people, I think, are always a little bit ahead of the politicians. And they have been on this. Theyíre very supportive of the economic recovery plan. They understand what it means in terms of getting the economy going again, and they, I think, appreciate the Presidentís commitment to investing not just in things that create jobs, but that will create long-term economic benefits for the country, health care and energy and education and rebuilding our roads and bridges and dams and levees. These are things that are going to pay dividends for years to come. The American people support that.

They do know, also, that itís going to take some time. One of the things I found most heartening about some of the polling that Iíve seen is that people are--theyíre at once optimistic about this President and the possibility of moving forward, but theyíre realistic about the problems we face. They know theyíre enormous. They know it is going to take a long time.

Two-thirds of the people in the most recent polling that Iíve seen felt that it would be at least two years, and perhaps as many as four, before they see the full results of what weíre doing today. So the American people have a very, I think, sober and realistic view of where weíre going here, but they feel, as we feel, that weíre going to get to where we want to be.

MS. ROMANO: Is there a difference, though, with what people feel and believe cerebrally with what theyíre feeling emotionally? So they say, "Yes, it is okay to have a two-year walk-up, but, you know, Iím about to lose my house." How do you balance those conflicting feelings?

MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think weíre going to try and--itís not as if all of this will kick in at once. Weíre going to have a housing program that will help--that will help people who are, through no fault of their own, now finding themselves in dire straits because their house is underwater.

We want to be helpful and keep people in their homes. Thatís our goal. We want to create--save or create millions of new jobs, so that people can----and these things will happen over time. So thereíll be some visible signs of progress, but itís going to take patience. Thereís no doubt about it, and it may be that there are, you know, peaks and valleys in terms of public opinion, but we canít measure our progress by where we are in each dayís polling.

I know thatís the fascinating of this town, but our goal is, over time, to repair the enormous damage thatís been done to our economy and get this country back on its feet, and weíre very focused on that goal, and weíre not going to be distracted by the political kerfuffle of the moment.

MS. ROMANO: When do you think the first jobs from the stimulus are going to hit the streets?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think some of them will begin very, very quickly.

MS. ROMANO: They will? Okay.

MR. AXELROD: Oh, yes, because some of the construction projects--Iíll give you an example. I flew in a few weeks ago with a guy from the Army Corps of Engineers whoís telling me that they have a bunch of projects, you know, rebuilding dams, for example, and levees that were deficient, something that weíve learned can be a matter of life and death. And they have contractors who are already clear. They can begin work almost immediately. I talked to others in State governments who said they can go almost immediately.

I think youíll see, particularly in the infrastructure front, a lot of jobs saved.

Also, State and local governments, , itís not just a matter of the jobs we create, but the jobs we save. I think some of the money that will be in this package will prevent the layoffs of police and firefighters and other key personnel. So those are not jobs that are added, but theyíre really significant in terms of keeping people at work and also keeping people safe.

MS. ROMANO: Was any decision made today on whether or not to open up Dover to--for the media for the returning servicemen?

MR. AXELROD: I donít believe we announced a decision on that.

MS. ROMANO: You coined the refrain, "Yes, we can." What should be the refrain of the first three weeks of the Obama administration?

MR. AXELROD: Well, look, I think that the first three weeks have been pretty productive. Weíre now in the last stages of passing a really ambitious economic recovery plan. I donít think thereís been a parallel to this in 70 years in this country. SCHIP, health insurance for millions of children, something that had been stalled for several years, is now the law. The pay equity, Lilly Ledbetter legislation, to make sure that women have the right to pursue back pay when theyíve been the victims of discrimination, that passed. That had been stalled. Weíve moved on issues like torture and Guantanamo.

There are a whole range of things that weíve accomplished. I think itís been an enormously productive few weeks.

And so to the American people, Iíve been on the road the last few days with the President, and, you know, weíve seen the polling numbers, but Iíve seen the faces of the American people. I think theyíre very--very supportive of the President.

MS. ROMANO: So, "yes, we did," would that be it?

MR. AXELROD: Yes, we are.

MS. ROMANO: Yes, we are. Okay.


MR. AXELROD: "Yes, we are," I think would be appropriate.

We have so much work to do and we recognize it, but we are just trying to move the ball forward every single day.

MS. ROMANO: So how did you rate the adjoining office to the Oval Office?

MR. AXELROD: Well, you know, thatís--this was all assigned by the Chief of Staff, and he told me it was a lucky officeóRahm did--because he had that office during the Clinton administration.

MR. AXELROD: But I donít know how I rated it, but itís a great place to be because Iím strategically located between his office and the Presidentís office, and so I donít have to walk very far to get things done.

MS. ROMANO: Well, tell us about your day. So how does your day work?

MR. AXELROD: Well, my day begins early. I get up about 5:30 or so, try and work out, read as much as I can in terms of clips and papers, get into the office by 7:15, 7:30. We have a 7:30 meeting and a series of meetings that begin that day. But beyond that, every day is different, depending on the issues of the moment, the challenges of the moment.

I spend a lot of time with our speech writers, which is something that I did during the campaign as well, trying to plan ahead for all the things that we have to accommodate.

The interesting thing about this job is that no day is exactly like the last day. But there are certain staples in terms of the meetings. Beyond that, you know, every day has its new challenges.

MS. ROMANO: You have a very close relationship with Barack Obama. Has it changed at all? Do you feel free walking into the Oval Office at any time?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I try and be respectful of his time and schedule because, you know, his day is obviously very packed, but when I need to talk to him, I go and talk to him.

The great thing about Barack Obama is his consistency as a person. He is the same person that Iíve known for 16 years. Heís the same person Iíve worked for, for 6 years. And while I think he appreciates the magnitude of the office he holds, I donít think that he lets that stand between him and his relationships with those around him, and he invites comment. He invites input, and that has always been true, and it hasnít change.

So, you know, the relationship is what it always has been.

MS. ROMANO: What do you call him?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I call him "Mr. President." And that is really out of respect.

I know that some--Andy Card felt that we were being disrespectful because we worked in shirt sleeves, but I want to be sure that Iím respectful of the office.

MS. ROMANO: Whatís it like being in Washington? You chose to stay in Chicago to be in the middle of the country, but now youíre in the middle of the process. How does that work for you?

MR. AXELROD: Well, you know, itís obviously a very energetic town, and itís an interesting town, and for someone whoís steeped in history, itís great to be in the middle of that.

I did choose to not be here because I felt--I always felt, and I still feel, that you get a much better read on the issues of the day when you live not in Washington. I think Washington in many ways is a very insular place, a kind of echo chamber, and I think the Recovery Act is a great example of that.

There was this sense somehow in this town that the thing was losing public support, and yet there was no polling really that supported that. And then you get outside of Washington, and thereís enormous support because people are suffering. They understand how badly the economy is doing and how we need to act. So itís important to keep in touch with the world outside.

MS. ROMANO: So, strategically, you decided to get go out--to get out of Washington to make that point?

MR. AXELROD: And the President really wanted to. And I think that, you know, his greatest concern is that he not lose touch with people. The reason he fought so hard for his BlackBerry was because he wanted to have a vehicle to talk to people outside of this city, and uh--and, you know, he gets--heís asked for a sampling of the letters that he receives every day, and he reads a bunch of letters every day from people around the country to keep touch.

And for the same reason, weíre going to be going out of town once a week or so, just to keep in touch with the American people.

But having said all that, I enjoy Washington.

MS. ROMANO: Are you having some fun?

MR. AXELROD: Itís an interesting place to be, but I refer to myself as a "Chicagoan on assignment."

And thatís what I will be until I go home to Chicago.

MS. ROMANO: Can I get a reaction on what--on Dick Cheneyís comments, that there will be a high probability of a terrorist attack--that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear attack in the next few years?

MR. AXELROD: I think we all live with the reality that there is a threat, and itís a grave threat. It existed during the years of the Bush administration. Weíre living with it now. Itís something that the President is completely focused on and meets every day on these threats.

I was disappointed in the Vice Presidentís comments, not because he said--stated the obvious which is that there are threats that are grave, but that he suggested that somehow the Presidentís decisions on torture in Guantanamo would increase the likelihood of that.

You know, one of the things that Iíve been impressed by is the graciousness that President Bush has shown during this transition period and in the weeks--first weeks of this administration.

When he left, he wished us the best, and I believe that he meant that, and I--apparently, the memo didnít circulate around the White House because Iíve seen, you know, what I consider tasteless comments by the Vice President, amazing comments by Karl Rove.

You know, the last thing that I think weíre looking for at this juncture is advice on fiscal integrity or ethics from Karl Rove. , anyone whoís read the newspapers for the last eight years would laugh at that.

So, I appreciate that President Bush has been so classy during this period, and Iím disappointed that some of the folks who worked for him didnít--donít share that.

MS. ROMANO: And so quickly. , they didnít even give you any breathing room.

MR. AXELROD: Yeah. Iíve never seen anything really like it. The truth is we do only have one President at a time, and weíve got serious challenges in this country, and to engage in that kind of intramural stuff.

I mentioned Andy Card saying that we were somehow denigrating the Presidency because people were wearing short sleeves in the Oval Office. Weíre wearing short sleeves because we have to roll up our sleeves and clean up the mess that we inherited.

So, I was--yeah, I was surprised by all of that.

MS. ROMANO: Last question, the peanut butter crisis.


MS. ROMANO: We have nine deaths. 1,400 products are impacted. What are you guys doing on that?

MR. AXELROD: Well, the Presidentís been in touch with--and the Chief of Staff with Secretary Vilsack in Agriculture, with some of the folks at the FDA. Weíre close to appointing a new FDA Commissioner.

Thereís obviously great concern about it. The President talks about the fact that his daughter Sasha loves peanut butter. And the thought that we might be sickening our children because of a deficiency--

MS. ROMANO: Do we need more inspectors?

MR. AXELROD: Well, the question is not--thatís not the only question. The question is are we--do we have too many overlapping jurisdictions here, and is there some way to streamline this and make the process more effective? And thatís what weíve asked people to look at.

Food safety has become more and more of a fundamental issue over the last few years, and, you know, the one thing that the government ought to be able to guarantee every American is that the food they eat is safe and wonít make them sick, and weíre committed to making sure that thatís the case.

MS. ROMANO: Okay, great. Thank you.

MS. ROMANO: And have a happy birthday.

MR. AXELROD: Yeah, you too. You too.


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