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Axelrod: Party In Power Shares Blame In Mass. Loss


And now, the view from the White House. We're joined by David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama.

Mr. Axelrod, welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Senior Adviser to President Barack Obama): Thanks, Melissa. Good to be with you.

BLOCK: We just heard Republican Dick Armey saying that this vote in Massachusetts reflects widespread anger about Democratic policies on everything from health care to the environment, to banking, to the auto bailout. Do you see it that way? Does this result in Massachusetts represent a rejection of President Obama's policies one year in?

Mr. AXELROD: Well, Senator Brown said that it was not a referendum on the president. There was a Republican poll that was taken on Election Day in which the vast majority of people said they were not voting to register a protest against the president.

But I do think that there's a great deal of anger out there about the state of the economy in which middle-class people are working harder and harder - if they haven't lost their jobs - just to hold their place. Wages have been flat for a decade. Health care costs have doubled; premiums have doubled over the decade.

And these are the same forces that really propelled Barack Obama in office in 2008. So we're well aware of them. This is why we're here. But as the party in power, you bear some of the responsibility for this. Or in people's eyes, you become the fulcrum. We understand that as well.

BLOCK: So going along with that message of anger, isn't part of the message also, you haven't fixed things, President Obama? We voted for change and we're not seeing it.

Mr. AXELROD: Yup, that is. There's no question about it. And, you know, a year ago, Melissa, when I heard the economic forecast, I said to the president, you know, we got some great numbers now, but they're not going to be so great a year from now because we're going to have to govern through the worst economy since the Great Depression, and that's going to be difficult. We're going to have to do some things to try and turn the economy around that are going to be politically difficult. And, indeed, we did.

We had a recovery package that was absolutely essential. And most economists agree it had a lot to do with breaking the back of this recession. We had to stabilize the financial industry, and that was a distasteful thing. We had to help the auto industry, because to not do that would have meant hundreds of thousands of jobs.

None of these things were politically popular. The president knew that when he did them. So, you know - and then we had a long health care debate that is important to the economic well-being of every middle-class person. But the process has not been very satisfying for anybody.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the future of the health care bill. The president told ABC that Congress should coalesce around core elements of the bill. Doesn't that mean you're scaling back your expectations for what can come out of Congress?

Mr. AXELROD: No. It means that we have a bill that provides enormous security that's needed for people around the country, people who have insurance and people who don't. The minute the president signs this bill, people with preexisting conditions will have the ability to get coverage they weren't able to get before.

BLOCK: But you won't have the 60 votes you would need for the bill as it stands now?

Mr. AXELROD: Well, there are a variety of possibilities. The Senate has passed a bill. The House has passed a bill. Certainly, they could embrace each other's bills. There are a number of options that are being discussed. But in no way -we're not going to give up that fight because this is essential to the economic stability of middle-class families.

BLOCK: But you are hearing now from Democrats in Congress, saying, you know, slow down. Anthony Weiner is saying the Democratic leadership is whistling past the graveyard if you think that Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts doesn't mean that you have to rethink the health care plan.

Mr. AXELROD: Here's my interpretation of this as someone who's been around politics for a long time. If we walk away from this, all that's going to be remaining is the negative caricature that the insurance industry, with their advertising and their allies in the Republican Party, have placed on it.

When you tell people it's actually in the bill, they're very enthusiastic about it, but they'll never know those benefits and will not be able to campaign on them if we don't pass this bill.

BLOCK: But if you had congressional Democrats, even before this, wavering on health care, what can convince them to back it now especially if they're facing voters in November and they're looking at what happened in Massachusetts?

Mr. AXELROD: Well, as I said, I think that the worst political decision would be to walk away. Look, I understand that there's consternation about this long process. Part of the reason the process has been long is because of dilatory tactics that we've seen and because our months and months of efforts to involve Republicans in the process ended up being frustrated by, I think, of political decision on their part not to be a part of that.

BLOCK: But do you think that's what voters were saying in Massachusetts? Or were they saying, we don't like this bill? It's not the process. We don't like what's being done here.

Mr. AXELROD: I don't think voters - I think - well, first of all, let's be clear that there were a lot of aspects to this Massachusetts race and, you know, it's convenient for the foes of health insurance reform and for the allies of the health insurance industry to say this was a victory for them.

And I think people reacted to the process. I think they reacted to an effective propaganda campaign against it by the opponents in the insurance industry. But that shouldn't keep us from doing the right thing for people here.

And I absolutely believe that once the president signs this bill and people realize they have new leverage in their relationship with their insurance company, when they realize if they have a preexisting condition, they have options; when they realize if they're a senior citizen, they don't have to face that big donut hole anymore in their prescription coverage, this is going to be a winner four us, but we have to hang together now.

BLOCK: David Axelrod, thank you.

Mr. AXELROD: All right. Nice to be with you.

BLOCK: David Axelrod is senior adviser to President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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