David Axelrod on "Meet the Press"

David Axelrod on "Meet the Press"

By Meet the Press - September 6, 2009

DAVID GREGORY: But first, the president's senior adviser, David Axelrod, joins us now live.

Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

MR. DAVID AXELROD: Thanks, David, good to be here.

MR. GREGORY: So here is the state, the landscape that the president now faces on health care. A poll this week shows a majority of Americans oppose, 51 percent, Republican leaders in the past few days have been saying if the president's going to speak before Congress, it's time to hit the reset button and start over. Will he?

MR. AXELROD: Well, look, first of all, understand that when people hear the details of where the president wants to go, bringing stability to people who have insurance today and security for them and helping those who don't have insurance get insurance, they support this plan. So the president has an opportunity on Wednesday to speak to the nation and the Congress on this. I think that he'll engender great support for where he wants to go. We've been through a long debate now. All the ideas are on the table. It's time to bring the strands together and get the job done for the American people here.

MR. GREGORY: Is this his plan that he'll present on Wednesday?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think there are elements--look, all the ideas are on the table, David. The president set forth principles at the beginning of this discussion at the beginning of the year and now all the ideas are on the table and the president will say we agree on 80 percent of this, let's, let's do the final 20 percent, let's get the job done, and here's how I think we should do it.

MR. GREGORY: But if Americans are confused, if they think this healthcare plan is negative, if they're scared by it, some even think it's socialism, what's the one thing that Americans will come away with on Wednesday? What will they know about this plan?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think they'll come away with a clear sense of what it is and what it's not. What it is is a plan that, again, will give more security and stability to people who have insurance today and it'll make it easier for those who don't to get it. You said in your open the president's going for broke. The idea here is to keep the American people from going broke as a result of soaring healthcare costs that have doubled in the last 10 years, risen three times the rate of wages. We want to bring security to the people who have insurance so that they're not thrown off their insurance if they get sick, so that if they lose their job or change their job, they'll still have coverage, so that people with pre-existing conditions can get insurance. That's what the American people need to know.

MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about ideas on the table. The big one is the so-called public option, a government plan that would be alongside private insurance plans to try to create competition and drive down costs. This is what the president said back in July about the public option.

(Videotape, July 18, 2009)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: That's why any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange, a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, costs and track records of a variety of plans, including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest, and choose what's best for your family.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Does the president stand by that statement?

MR. AXELROD: You know, he certainly believes that a public option within this exchange would be important. Let's, let's, let's focus on what the issue is. There are 10...

MR. GREGORY: He said it must be included, David. He said it must be included.

MR. AXELROD: He said there must--he said there must be a, an exchange where people can get insurance at a competitive price. He believes in competition and choice. The public option is a, is an important tool to help promote that where there is no competition. He still believes that. But here's the problem, David. If you don't have insurance today, if don't have insurance through your employer and you need to get a policy, it costs you three times as much, on the average, as it would if you had employer coverage. People simply can't afford it. One of the ways--so we want to create a pool in which people who don't have insurance, and small businesses, can go and get insurance at a competitive price. And a public option would be a valuable tool within that group, that package of plans that would be offered, private and public.

MR. GREGORY: I just want to be clear here because in his statement, he was unequivocal. He said it must be included. A public plan must be included. Is he now signaling that he would compromise on that if you could still have some measure of competition?

MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, you'd have to take the whole statement. He believes that a health insurance exchange where people can go, small businesses, people who don't have insurance can get insurance at an affordable price is still essential to any health reform and he believes a public option would be an important part of that package. He hasn't changed his view.

MR. GREGORY: This is what the House speaker says, Nancy Pelosi. She draws a line in the sand. She says the following, "Any real change requires the inclusion of a strong public option to promote competition and bring down costs. If a vigorous public option is not included, it would be a major victory for the health insurance industry. A bill without a strong public option will not pass the House. Eliminating the public option would be a major victory for the insurance companies. We have rationed care, increased premiums and denied coverage." Does the president agree with the House speaker?

MR. AXELROD: Well, he certainly agrees that we have to have competition and choice to hold the insurance companies honest. We have to have insurance protections for folks who have insurance, so they can't do the kinds of things that they've done in the past, arbitrarily throwing people off their insurance if they have a pre-existing condition or if they get seriously ill. He agrees with all of that. The idea here is to bring more security and stability to people who have insurance and to help those who don't have insurance get it at a price they can afford. The public option within that exchange is certainly a valuable tool.

MR. GREGORY: The reality is as a political matter, you cannot get Republicans to sign on nor can you get moderate Democrats, maybe 10 or 12 of them to sign on if the president fights for the public option. True or false?

MR. AXELROD: Look, why don't we let the president speak and make his case and then we can have this discussion. I believe that there's enormous consensus around a broad number of issues that would make a great difference for people who have insurance and people who need insurance and we have to build on that. And I think the president will be able to do that on Wednesday night and we'll go from there.

MR. GREGORY: What about the idea of a trigger, which is to say that you can introduce a government plan into states if the private insurance market doesn't succeed at driving down prices? Does the president think that's an idea worth considering?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I'll let the president address the specifics on Wednesday, David. But again, the goal here is to create competition and choice. There are markets where there are insurance companies that, that have 90 percent of the business, states in this countries. So it's very difficult to discipline the insurance companies on price and on the quality of care. Competition would do that and give the consumers a better break. He's for promoting competition and choice.

MR. GREGORY: So a trigger is still possible?

MR. AXELROD: Well, again, I'll let him address this. He believes the public option is a, is a good tool. Now, it shouldn't define the whole healthcare debate, however. There are, you know, the insurance guarantees that are in there for the 160 million people who have employer-based coverage are absolutely essential so that they have, you know, the ability to hang on to their insurance if they get seriously ill and not get thrown off. If they have someone in their family with a pre-existing condition, they can get them covered and so on. We have to--that there's a cap on out of pocket expenses so if you get sick, you don't go broke. These are the that health reform would bring to people who have insurance today as they hold on to the policies that they have.

MR. GREGORY: Let's look at the president's political standing over the course of this summer as this debate has raged on. Among independent voters, these are the voters you know well, who actually delivered the presidency to Mr. Obama, and the numbers have flipped now. Since July, his approval rating overall among independent voters down to 43 percent. Did the administration lose control of the healthcare debate?

MR. AXELROD: Now look, this is a difficult issue, David. We knew that. We've been trying to solve this for four decades and the problem's only gotten worse as Washington dithered. But the reason it's difficult is because it inspires great passions and we, we knew that. But let me tell you something. The president of the United States is not sitting there reading his poll numbers. The president--the numbers he's reading are the 12 million people who've been excluded from insurance in the last few years because they have a pre-existing condition. He's reading letters from people who have lost their insurance simply because they became seriously ill. He's worried about the continued doubling every 10 years of healthcare costs and what that means for families and businesses and the government itself. Those are the numbers that he cares about. That's what he's focused on and he believes that if you do the right thing, you solve problems, that the rest will take care of itself. So you know, we're going to forge forward, get this done. It's going to be an advance for the American people and I think ultimately that will, will, will pay great dividends politically. But that's not the motivation. Solving the problem is what we have to focus on.

MR. GREGORY: Bottom line: what's achievable on health care this year?

MR. AXELROD: I think we're going to have major reform this year, reform, again, that brings stability to people who have insurance so they're not abused within the insurance system and gives the option to--gives the ability to people who don't have insurance to get insurance at a price they can afford. And brings the overall rate of healthcare spending down so we're not on this inexorable, unsustainable climb. I believe those things are going to happen this year. I think there's a will to do it, the American people want us to do it, and I think we're going to get it done.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about this education speech the president plans to give on Tuesday. It's created this firestorm of controversy around the country. He wanted to address students coming back to school, welcome them back, talk about studying, staying in school, personal responsibility. But now you've got school districts around the country saying, "Hold on, we want to look at this thing first. We may not show it in our classrooms, we don't like the lesson plans that necessarily go along with it." It may not go off anywhere near how it was intended. How did you lose control of this?

MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, we'll be releasing the president's remarks in advance so everybody can have a chance to evaluate it. He's been--he'll say the same thing he's been saying to young people throughout his public life, which is that they have control over their own destiny, they have to work hard, they have to study, they have to make--they're the ones who can make something of their own lives. If--all we can do is give them an opportunity. It's an important message. It is a message about personal responsibility, and I would think it would be welcomed across the country. But that's up to--people will make their own decision about it.

MR. GREGORY: But what happened here? Are you surprised at this reaction?

MR. AXELROD: Well, you know what? I mean, I was. I was a little bewildered by it because it--I think it's an important and wholesome message. There's nothing political about it, and it's a shame that some people have tried to politicize it. But you know, when the president speaks, I think people will make their judgment. I think it's important for a president to stand up for that principle of individual responsibility, and I think if our young people--if he can, if he can help one young--we've got 30--nearly a 30 percent dropout rate in this country, if he can persuade one child in this country to stay in school, to keep at it, to make something of their life, then the whole exercise would have been worth it.

MR. GREGORY: Another domestic matter. Van Jones, who's been an adviser to the White House on environmental policy, resigned overnight because of some inflammatory comments he's made over time, including a petition he signed that blamed the government for the 9/11 attacks. Was this an issue that got to the president? Did he personally order that he be fired?

MR. AXELROD: Absolutely not. This was an, an--this was Van Jones' own decision. You know, he is internationally known as an advocate for green jobs. And that's the basis on which he was hired. He said in his statement that he didn't want his comments to become a distraction from the issue, which is so important to the future of our economy and communities around the country. And I commend him for making that decision.

MR. GREGORY: Was he the victim of a smear campaign as he alleges?

MR. AXELROD: Well, look, this is a--you know, the politician environment is, is, is, is rough and so, you know, these things get magnified. But the bottom line is that he's showed his commitment to the cause of creating green jobs in this country by removing himself as a, as an issue and I think that took, that took a great deal of commitment on his part.

MR. GREGORY: But was the president offended by what he said?

MR. AXELROD: I haven't spoken to the president about this. As you know, this, this thing has bubbled up in the last few days, and frankly, my conversation with the president have mostly been about health care, which is where our focus should be right now.

MR. GREGORY: Do you find it--what he said objectionable?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I haven't read all of, of his comments, either, David. Again, I'm focused on how we get health security for all Americans, how we get this economy moving in the right direction. We've pulled back from the abyss of a potential collapse and now we have to build for the future and get people back to work. I think those are the things that we should be focused on and that's what I am focused on.

MR. GREGORY: David, I want to end on a question about the other huge challenge for this administration and this president and that is Afghanistan. This was The Washington Post headline on Tuesday. "General," speaking of General McChrystal, "Afghan situation is serious and McChrystal expected to seek more resources, but the White House is wary." Will the president be reluctant to commit more U.S. forces to the war in Afghanistan?

MR. AXELROD: Well, look, we have--we've been in Afghanistan since 2001 when we were attacked by al-Qaeda who were posted there. That's why we went. We drifted for a period of years where we had no strategy. The president ordered a strategic review in the winter and we're executing that, but it called for a review--another review after the election and that's where we are. He's going to get General McChrystal's reports and recommendations as well as those of others and make a decision. But the main thing is, we have to keep focused on what our mission was there, which was to disable and destroy al-Qaeda so they don't threaten us any longer, and that's the prism through which he'll make his judgments.

MR. GREGORY: Should there be a deadline for troop withdrawal just as then Senator Obama called on the Bush administration to get troops out of Iraq? Is it reasonable to set that kind of deadline with regard to troops in Afghanistan?

MR. AXELROD: Well, look, we have a different situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is actually the place that--Afghanistan and Pakistan--where the folks who attacked us on 9/11 are holed up and plotting against us still. That's a problem that still exists. It's a threat that still exists. We have to deal with it and so it's a wholly different situation. But the president will evaluate...

MR. GREGORY: So no deadline. No deadline is appropriate?

MR. AXELROD: The president, the, the president will evaluate all that, that--all the information that's coming to, to him now. We have a series of benchmarks and review points set up and, you know, he's going to make the hard judgments that need to be made.

MR. GREGORY: We will leave it there. David Axelrod, thank you very much.

MR. AXELROD: OK, David, thanks for having me.


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