Axelrod: We Didn't Do Enough to Sell Agenda

White House senior adviser David Axelrod admitted Wednesday that the administration didn’t do enough to help explain Democrats’ legislative accomplishments to the public over the past two years.

President Barack Obama “didn’t have time” to focus on messaging as he tackled major issues that “came in rapid fire” as soon as he got to office, Axelrod told Roll Call during a West Wing interview.

As Democrats face potentially historic losses at the polls, Axelrod said the crowded agenda was part of the problem. “No sensible person would come here and, as their first act, embrace and extend the TARP and pass a Recovery Act of $787 billion and then take on the auto industry issue.”

But each of those steps was crucial, and their passage helped prevent the country from “slipping into a second Depression,” Axelrod said. Still, he continued, the result of taking on so many pressing issues at once was that Obama could not focus his attention on telling the public why each bill mattered.

“We didn’t have time to unpack it and do, you know, a few months on tax cuts and a few months on, you know, on clean energy. We didn’t have a chance to really take victory laps around each element of what we were doing,” Axelrod said.

“I readily concede that it wasn’t optimal from a messaging standpoint,” he said.

[IMGCAP(1)]The White House adviser also acknowledged that the administration has struggled to demonstrate why Obama’s signature issue, the nearly $1 trillion health care overhaul, is a step toward fiscal discipline.

“It’s hard to explain to the American people how a program that expands coverage could be necessary in order to bring fiscal rectitude to government. But the fact is the reforms we made in Medicare are going to ... make an enormous difference in terms of holding down the cost of health care to government,” he said.

Congressional Democrats have long complained about Obama not doing enough to help sell the sweeping measures he asked for and they fought to pass, in many cases by just a handful of votes.

“The messaging has been terrible almost since day one. One of the best communicated campaigns I’ve ever seen and the worst messaging presidency,” one liberal House Member recently said.

A senior Democratic aide agreed that the White House fell short in touting the party’s successes, a shortcoming that could hurt Democrats already mired in tough re-election campaigns: “We allowed the right to hijack the debate on health care and on the Recovery Act.”

Axelrod said the state of play in Democratic races “is about what I expected to be” two weeks before the Nov. 2 elections.

“Midterm elections are always tough for the majority party, particularly so when you’ve had two bumper years like we had, where we took 55 seats” in Congress, he said. In addition, people are “frustrated, as they should be” over the fragile state of the economy.

But Axelrod pointed to a number of reasons this cycle will be “a more idiosyncratic election than people think,” with Democrats poised to pull off a string of unexpected wins.

For starters, he said, people making “apocalyptic projections” about a wave of GOP victories akin to their 1994 takeover of Congress are not taking into account that Republicans’ approval ratings are currently below Democrats, which was not the case in 1994. In addition, the GOP advantage seen in polling “is almost entirely predicated on the enthusiasm gap, so that becomes a turnout issue” that Democrats can win in certain races, Axelrod said.

The bottom line is that while “there’s no doubt” Democrats are going to lose seats in 2010, “the degree of that loss is very much up in the air,” he said.

Regardless of whether Republicans take control of either one or both chambers of Congress, Axelrod said an increase in GOP seats could foster bipartisan cooperation.

“The hope I have, though it’s more a hope than an expectation, is that with more seats ... they will feel or be forced to accept a greater sense of responsibility,” he said. “Our attitude is, we’ll work with anybody who wants to work with us. We are open to a sensible compromise but not compromises on fundamental principles, and there are things we’re just never going to agree on. We all understand that.”

The White House adviser opened the door to the idea of making changes to health care reform, though he dismissed Republican campaign pledges to repeal the bill altogether. Axelrod said that stance will gain no traction with the administration, but he said there may be smaller pieces of the bill worth tweaking.

“There isn’t anything that is perfect, and where there are problems or concerns that we can address, we’ll address them and we’ll work with whomever wants to work with us to do that,” he said, noting that the health care overhaul will not be fully implemented until 2014.

But he added that Republicans who are “running around this country” calling for repealing and replacing health care reform should not expect to see that happen on Obama’s watch.

“What they’re talking about is essentially reversing the thing. We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to do that,” he said.

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