Interview with Obama Advisor David Axelrod

Interview with Obama Advisor David Axelrod

By John King, USA - April 12, 2012

KING: Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Hilary Rosen created quite a firestorm when she said last night that Mitt Romney's wife hadn't, quote, "worked a day in her life."

The comment was quickly condemned by the Obama campaign's senior advisers, Vice President Biden, and first lady Michelle Obama. And just a short time ago, even the president weighed in, telling a local TV station in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, quote, "I haven't met Mrs. Romney. But she seems like a very nice woman who is supportive of her family and supportive of her husband. I don't know if she necessarily volunteered for this job. So, you know, we don't need to be directing comments at them."

Why this firestorm and where is it heading? Let's have a conversation. Joining me from Chicago now is David Axelrod. He's the senior strategist in the Obama re-election campaign.

David, I want to play first what started all this. Hilary Rosen, someone you know quite well, was on "ANDERSON COOPER 360" last night, talking about what some call the war on women and Mrs. Romney's role as a prominent surrogate husband when she said this.


HILARY ROSEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, "Well, you know, my wife tells me what women really care about are economic issues and, when I listen to my wife, that's what I'm hearing."

Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing, in terms of how do we feed our kids? How do we send them to school? And how do we -- why do we worry about their future?


KING: Now, Jim Messina, the campaign manager, took issue on Twitter almost immediately. You took issue on Twitter almost immediately. The first lady sends out a tweet critical of this. The vice president says absolutely it was wrong. Now the president himself answering questions about it. Why is this such a big deal?

DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA ADVISOR: I don't know in the long term whether it will be a big deal. Obviously, it was an unfortunate comment. It was unfortunate for two reasons.

One is I really believe that, in the battles of politics, that families -- families are civilians and should be treated as such. They shouldn't be pulled into the debate in that kind of way as targets. And so it was unfortunate from that respect.

The other thing was it did feel like a denigration of stay-at- home moms. And there are, you know -- there are a lot of moms who are working who would like to be staying home. There are moms who choose to be working. But certainly, to suggest that you're not working if you're staying at home, raising a family, often active in schools, often in the community and causes, you know, that's not -- that's not right.

My own wife was a stay-at-home mom and worked harder than anybody I know. And often, the moms are the ones who are handling the family finances, as well.

So it was an unfortunate comment. Hilary has acknowledged that. I think, John, it's also true that the Romney campaign jumped on it like a raft out in the deep blue sea. Because they were drowning under the weight of their own problems.

Earlier in the day, they couldn't come up with an answer as to whether Governor Romney supported the pay equity law, the first law the president signed. They endorsed -- he endorsed and warmly spoke of Governor Walker in Wisconsin, who just repealed the pay equity law there. I think that actually has more durable meaning to the women of this country than this contretemps.

KING: I think there's no question, the substance, anyway, of the debate about the economy and the role of women in the economy is more important than this contretemps.

But you say the Romney campaign jumped on it. That's true. They saw an opening, and they seized it. That's what you do in politics. That's what a smart guy like David Axelrod would tell his client to do.

But you guys seized on it, too. And there are some people saying, you know, "Well, wait a minute. Wait a minute, the vice president has said some things in the past that he's had to take back."

Debbie Wasserman Schultz is among those who criticized her friend, Hilary Rosen; has said some things that have made the White House cringe in the past. She's your Democratic National Committee chairwoman. Why so fast to trash -- forgive me, my word, not yours -- somebody who is a trusted ally of this White House, who has been out there defending the president quite a bit?

AXELROD: I think that we have an obligation in politics and public life, when someone, even friends, say things that are inappropriate to say so. In fact, in certain ways, when your friends say it, there s more of an obligation to do so. And, you know, I think that's true on both sides.

I've been disappointed on the other side of the aisle just recently when governor Romney and others were not willing to stand up and denounce speech that they felt was -- that most people would call inappropriate.

So I thought we had an obligation to speak and speak very, very quickly to make clear that this didn't reflect our point of view and that we thought Hilary didn't -- should apologize. She did do that.

The other thing, John, that we should clear up is she actually is your employee, not ours. She's a -- she works for CNN, I think. CNN would not allow her to be an operative for our campaign or the DNC. She's not. She never has been.

She's certainly a supporter of the president. But she -- the Romney campaign has throughout the day portrayed her as an adviser to the president. And that's simply not true.

KING: She has been an adviser. I was about to move on. But since you bring that up, she has been an adviser, though, to Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She has visited the White House on numerous occasions. She was very close with your former communications director, Anita Dunn, who she now works with in the private sector. And she's among the Democrats who consults. Yes, she's a paid employee of CNN, a contributor. Yes, you're right. But she's among the Democrats who consulted with the White House.

AXELROD: No doubt. She's been part of -- she's been part of the political community in Washington for a long time. I'm sure she's visited the White House frequently under other presidents. You know, John Boehner visits the White House all the time, too. He's not an Obama adviser.

KING: That's where -- that's where a lot of your friends are getting -- cringing, though, David. Because Hilary Rosen is not John Boehner. She has a lot of friends in the Obama White House. This is the part...

AXELROD: She is my friend. Look, I -- I said several minutes ago that we have an obligation to speak out, not just when people say things we think are inappropriate who are on the other side of the aisle. But when people who are on our side of the aisle, our friends, speak out.

And Hilary herself has acknowledged that her word -- that she misspoke and she said -- said something that she regretted saying in the way that she said it. And I accept -- I accept that.

KING: Let's move on to the economy. As you know, the president has been hoping, and the president has been telling the American people he thinks things are finally starting to get better. You have a couple of encouraging months. Then you get last month's job report: only 120,000 jobs created. Just today, the government tells us new unemployment claims jumped way up to 380,000 last week.

And then you look. I want to show you some ABC/"Washington Post" poll numbers. Warning signs, I will say.

"Who do you trust to better handle the economy?" Even though Mitt Romney is down double digits on "Who would you pick for president?", look at that. A statistical tie, but he's slightly ahead of the president on who would you trust to handle the economy?

Now, look at these warning signs for your candidate, David. Fifty-four percent disapprove of the president's handling of the economy. Sixty-two percent disapprove of his handling of gas prices, and 64 percent think the country is headed on the wrong track.

You know how these campaigns work. There's a psychology to the economy. George H.W. Bush learned it in 1992, when the statistics were starting to get better. People just didn't believe it. How long do you have to turn around especially that last number? Sixty-four percent think the country is on the wrong track.

AXELROD: Yes, well, first of all, let me say that we've said throughout that this was -- this is going to be a long, hard slog back. We've had 25 months of positive private sector job growth. It's gone up and down but moving in that direction. And we need to add to that and we need to add momentum to it. But we've always said that it was not going to be a straight line.

But you use an example of Bush in '92. You know, the biggest gap in that "Washington Post" poll, John -- I know you study these things closely -- was in who identifies with your problems, who understands what's going on in your life? And there was a 30-point gap between the president and Governor Romney on this.

And there's a reason for that. Because Governor Romney is out of touch with the concerns and the economic anxiety of the American people. And when you look at his prescriptions, he simply wants to go back to the same thing that got us into this mess in the first place: big tax cuts for the wealthy. Cut Wall Street loose to write its own rules.

The president is fighting for not just to get people back to work but to make sure that work pays, to make sure that the middle class is growing again, to make sure that if you work hard, you can get ahead. That if you act responsibly, that you'll be rewarded. And that everybody from Main Street to Wall Street plays by the same rules.

That's how we're going to get this economy moving: education, research and development, getting control of our energy future with a 21st century energy plan. That's how we're going to get this economy moving in the long run and create a larger and thriving middle class. And that's a big difference between us and Governor Romney.

KING: Let me close on a more playful note. When team Obama led by David Axelrod goes into the strategy room, the war room, and they're looking at the electoral map, and they're thinking who is Mitt Romney going to pick as his running mate, who do you think on this day is at the top of the list?

AXELROD: Gee, I don't know. I think there are a lot of theories about that. I'm sure they're more active in their war room thinking about that than we are in our war room.

But you know, you've heard the theory that maybe he can pick someone who will help him address his very serious trouble with Hispanic voters. Maybe he can pick someone who will help him win a state. Maybe he can pick someone who will help him address his problem with women.

I think ultimately, you know, the reality of vice-presidential picks is they rarely help you, but they can hurt you. And you ought to pick the person who you think could be a plausible president, the best possible replacement for you, and someone who can handle the -- this whole part of the process. And -- and that's not easy.

So, you know, my guess is he'll make a more conservative choice, maybe not politically. I don't know -- I don't know about that. But a more conservative choice in terms of the array of people he's considering.

KING: Free advice for Governor Romney from David Axelrod tonight. I'm not sure he'll take it, David. But appreciate your time. We'll keep in touch.

AXELROD: No problem. Good to see you, John. Thank you.

KING: Good to see you, too. Take care. Thank you. 

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John King, USA

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