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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Ten questions for David Axelrod

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Good morning, Early Birds. TGIF. Tips: We're off Monday for Washington's Birthday (as the federal holiday is officially known). See you on Tuesday.

⏰: “The Senate on Thursday approved a measure to fund the federal government through March 11, marking the final legislative step toward preventing a shutdown that would have occurred by the end of the week,” our colleague Tony Romm reports. “The measure now heads to President Biden’s desk, where his signature will give lawmakers about three more weeks to reach the sort of longer-term deal that has eluded them for months — a tricky debate that some hope will pave the way for billions of dollars in new coronavirus aid.”

The campaign

Ten questions for … David Axelrod

Ten questions for … David Axelrod: We chatted with the longtime adviser to Barack Obama about his decision to step away from running the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, his advice for Biden's State of the Union and how Democrats can survive the midterms. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

The Early: You announced on Tuesday that you'll step down next year as the institute's director. What led you to make that decision?

Axelrod: We should have told you — I decided that that was a terrible mistake, so I'm going to rescind the whole thing. [Laughs.] No, I knew from the very beginning when I started the IOP that I would stay no longer than 10 years, because I fundamentally believe that 10 years is long enough to run any organization and there are diminishing returns. You develop habits that sort of get in the way of innovation and entrepreneurism that I think is essential to keep a program fresh.

The Early: You published a New York Times op-ed this week in which you urged President Biden to acknowledge how hard things are in his upcoming State of the Union, without delivering an updated version of Jimmy Carter's malaise speech. What led you to write that piece and how do you think he can strike that balance?

Axelrod: Part of what led me to write that is my own experience in the Obama White House during the Great Recession. And part of it was I saw the president did a press conference the day before the anniversary of his inauguration. He was very, very much touting his achievements and talking about the great progress the country had made. And it just didn't match up with people's mood. 

The Early: Was there a particular moment in this press conference that felt off key?

Axelrod: One particular answer that struck me was, he was asked what he had learned from the last year and what he would be doing [differently] as a result. And he said, 'I want to get out of the building and I want to travel the country more.' I thought that was a great answer — until he added the clause, ‘so I can tell people what we're doing.’ A better answer would have been, ‘so I can hear what's going on in people's lives in their own words.'

The Early: A Los Angeles Times poll out this morning found that only 47 percent of California voters approve of Biden, down from 59 percent in the same poll in July. What do you make of one of those numbers?

Axelrod: I think the country is out of sorts. There's a sense that he needs to overcome — some of which is his fault, a lot of which isn't — that things are out of control in a lot of different ways. Inflation, crime, the debate and discussion about the virus and what we need to do and the masks and no masks and so on. And he doesn't seem as if he's in command of it all the time. And that is a challenge. Now, I will say I actually think he's been very much in control of what he can control relative to this Ukraine situation. He's been very strong in terms of calling Putin out, making clear what the ramifications will be of Putin invades, pulling NATO together.

The Early: Nationally, about 42 percent of Americans approve of Biden's job performance and about 53 percent disapprove, which makes him about as popular as Donald Trump was at this point in his presidency. What do you think that augurs for the midterms?

Axelrod: Well, if the president's numbers are in the summer, into the fall what they are right now, it is a dark auguring for the Democratic Party. Presidential approval ratings are pretty strongly tied to party performance in midterm elections. Democrats don't want him to go into the fall with a 41 or 42 percent approval rating. That would be a profoundly bad spot to be.

The Early: What can Democrats do to limit the potential damage?

Axelrod: My strong feeling is if they allow this just to be a referendum on the Democratic president and the Democratic Party, they're likely to lose quite a few seats. The goal should be to make it a comparative process. And they have an opportunity because the Republican Party really hasn't offered any sort of agenda. All we know is that [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy promises to take out vengeance on members of the Democratic caucus. He promises to reinstate [Reps.] Marjorie Taylor Greene [(R-Ga.)] and Paul Gosar [(R-Ariz.) to their committees]. The impression you're left with is what they're promising is gridlock, chaos and vengeance.

The Early: What was the last book that you finished? And what are you reading now?

Axelrod: Right now I'm reading [“Lincoln’s Men”]. It is a book about John Hay and John Nicolay, the two young aides to President Lincoln. I love it because I was a White House aide, so it's cool to read a book about what it was like to be a White House aide then. There are certain things that are the same — the relationship they had with Lincoln and so on.

The Early: You’ve done nearly 500 episodes of your podcast, “The Axe Files.” Which interviews have really stuck in your mind?

Axelrod: One particularly moving episode was with Karl Rove. And it was moving because we share this very sad thing in common in that we both lost parents to suicide. It was important to me for two reasons. One is I always think we should talk about these things because there are a lot of people struggling, particularly now, with mental health issues, mental illness. The second thing is we have so much vitriol in our politics. We've come to the point where we can't just oppose each other but we have to demonize each other and disqualify each other as citizens and as humans. And I think it's really important when we can find our common humanity.  

The Early: You compared Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement in December that he couldn't support the Build Back Better Act to Martha Coakley’s loss in 2010. The White House, of course, has not succeeded in bringing Build Back Better back from the dead in the way that Obama did with the Affordable Care Act. Do you have any advice for the Biden administration?

Axelrod: When Obama brought the Affordable Care Act back, he did it basically by going underground and working quietly. They just have to figure out what, if anything, Manchin would accept and then move forward on that if they can. These long, protracted legislative dramas, particularly within your own party — it's a bad look. And I don't think [Biden] needs another chapter like that.

The Early: To paraphrase a question that New York magazine used to ask New Yorkers: Who is your favorite Chicagoan, living or dead, real or fictional?

Axelrod: I had the honor of covering and then working for the late Mayor Harold Washington, who was the first African American mayor of Chicago. And Harold was a larger-than-life figure who, in many ways, reflected this town. He was tough and he was cocky and he was funny and irreverent but really loved the city. He was very blunt and straightforward, but also warm. He’s someone that I remember with great fondness and admiration.

On K Street

Invariant adds Ashley Sullivan

New hire: The lobbying firm Invariant has hired Ashley O'Sullivan. She was previously an in-house lobbyist for the drug distributor AmerisourceBergen and before that worked for the lobbying firm Roberti Global.

At the White House

Series of escalations at Ukrainian border could open the door to Russian invasion, U.S. warns

The proof is in the Putin: “Biden and his top aides acknowledge they are risking American credibility as they constantly renew the alarm that Russia is only ‘several days’ away from triggering an unprovoked land war in Europe that could kill tens of thousands of Ukrainians in its opening hours, and plunge the world back into something resembling the Cold War,” the New York Times’s David E. Sanger writes. “But Biden’s aides say they are willing to take that risk.”

  • “They would rather be accused of hyperbole and fearmongering than be proven right, they say, if that’s what it takes to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from pursuing an invasion that they worry will not stop at Ukraine’s borders.”
  • “Their pessimism was reinforced Thursday by a series of escalations. Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region appeared responsible for shelling a school, and later claimed they had come under fire from Ukrainian forces, exactly the kind of incident Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned might be used as a pretext to justify an invasion.”
  • Happening today: “Biden will hold a phone call Friday afternoon with trans-Atlantic leaders about Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine and continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy.”

The Media

Weekend reeeads: 


We’re going✈️crazy leggings, wayyy too much hairspray and baby Whitney Houston

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