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Axelrod Argues Obama Economic Policies Worked, Though There's More To Do

David Axelrod.
Brian Kersey
David Axelrod.

David Axelrod, President Obama's political strategist, has what appears to be — from outside the president's re-election campaign, at least — a problem.

Back in early 2009, when the Obama presidency was still brand new, the president gave that NBC News interview in which he talked about his administration being a "one-term proposition" if the economy didn't snap back in time for his re-election.

Three years later, and the U.S. economy, while improved, still feels to too many Americans like it's still in recession. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, keeps reminding voters of Obama's "one-term proposition" comment every chance he gets.

In an interview scheduled to air Friday, Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep asked Axelrod how the Obama campaign intends to deal with what seems like the president's 2009 argument against his own re-election.

Axelrod indicated that the campaign's argument for a second term will be that the president's policies have helped improve the economy significantly since that 2009 interview — though the recovery is still a work in progress.

Axelrod: "I'm saying that the president said we need to turn the economy around and show a real improvement in three years, and I think we have shown a real improvement. I am not in any way suggesting we don't have more work to do, nor is he.

"But it took years to get into this mess, Steve, and it's going to take a while longer than anybody would want to get out of it.

"The question is, are we moving in the right direction and do we think going back to the same politics that created the crisis are somehow a wise way to go? I don't think the American people believe that."

In other words, the Obama campaign argument will be a variation of the "it could have been much worse" argument. That isn't necessarily the most promising case for a president seeking a second term — which Steve pointed out to Axelrod.

INSKEEP: "You're a pro. Isn't this a tough argument to make?"

Being the pro that he is, Axelrod side-stepped the question.

AXELROD: "Look, first of all let's set aside the politics for a second and understand this has been a tough time for our country ..."

Axelrod, who exited his job last year as a top White House aide to return to his native Chicago, left little doubt that Romney's track record as a top executive in the private-equity industry will be grist for the Obama campaign. Romney himself has made that experience central to his candidacy.

Asked if he would be recycling charges made by Newt Gingrich against Romney in the Republican primaries, Axelrod said:

"I don't like to think of myself as recycling anything that Newt Gingrich does."

As if to prove that point, Axelrod made an argument against Romney that Gingrich would be very unlikely to make, because it has growing income inequality at its heart.

Romney doesn't get it, Axelrod said: The problem with the economy is that in recent decades, increasing amounts of the national income have been swept into the bank and the investment accounts of those at the very top of the income distribution; meanwhile, he said, American workers, more productive than ever, got the short end.

Obama's strategist said he recently listened to Romney tell a woman at a televised campaign event that higher productivity equals higher income.

AXELROD: "In that one sentence, he misses the whole problem. Productivity hasn't equaled income for a long time. Income has been flat. Productivity has been rising precipitously. The gains have been captured by the people at the top, but most Americans haven't progressed. We need to build an economy in which most Americans capture those gains themselves, and we see a growing middle class, and our standard of living improves, and the future for our children have bright prospects. That is the economy we're fighting for."

He expects the general-election campaign to be nasty, Axelrod said, given the presence of superPACs. Voters would prefer to hear an uplifting message from a presidential candidate, he said.

AXELROD: "I can only tell you from our standpoint we believe that the president, or anybody who wants to be president, has to project a positive vision about where they want to take this country, has to give people a sense of that path forward. And if all you're doing is running down the other candidate and, also, running down America, I don't think you're going to be successful. And that's not the kind of candidate and that's not the kind of president Barack Obama has been or will be."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.