Yesterday afternoon, I was fortunate to attend a roundtable discussion at the White House with Obama strategist David Axelrod and a small group of left-leaning reporters and bloggers. A day after the State of the Union Address, Axelrod offered few specifics of how the president planned to move forward on his call for new investments in technology, education and infrastructure alongside a five-year domestic spending freeze, but signaled there could be a major showdown with Congressional Republicans over how to fund the federal government in a few weeks, perhaps reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s clash with Newt Gingrich in 1995. (You can read the whole transcript over at Daily Kos).
While indicating that Obama will focus on cutting the deficit “in a responsible way” in the coming years, Axelrod also stressed that the president would not wholeheartedly embrace the rigid austerity politics currently being pushed by the GOP. “Dealing with spending is part of the equation, but it’s not the only part of the equation,” Axelrod said from the Roosevelt room. “And reducing the debt and dealing with spending is not in and of itself a growth strategy. And that’s where we may maybe have a philosophical difference [with Republicans].”
The president doesn’t believe that it is enough simply to cut the budget or reduce the debt or reduce the size of government. In the world in which we live, if we do that and don’t educate our citizens and lead the world in that; if we don’t innovate; if we don’t have kind of basic infrastructure that we need to be competitive, then we’re not going to prevail.
And so as we cut, we’ve got to do it in a responsible way and make sure that we’re not cutting those very things that are going to allow us to continue to be a dominant economic force and create opportunity for our people.
Axelrod seemed confident that a debate over these differing approaches to the coming budget, which will be released in mid-February, would work to the administration’s advantage.
Part of what the President did last night and what he’s doing today in Wisconsin and what he’ll continue to do relentlessly is make the case for this growth agenda, for this strategy, to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the world.
And hopefully there will be public pressure and support on Democrats and Republicans to support this strategy. If you don’t support this strategy, then the question is what is your strategy? What is your strategy for growth?
I think people are going to be asking that question. And we have an answer.
And presumably Congress is going to then turn their cards over and say how they would do it differently. And we can have a discussion, the American people can participate in that discussion, as to the priorities.
You can’t just swirl around in the land of the theoretical forever.
Beyond the budget, Axelrod promised that Social Security privatization, of the kind proposed by Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, was a “non-starter,” though he did not unequivocally rule out future cuts to the program.
In the long term there are issues on the horizon relative to Social Security. Among younger Americans, there’s a profound suspicion that Social Security isn’t even going to be there. And among older Americans, there’s a great deal of anxiety about tampering with it.
And our goal is to make sure that the program is strong and secure. The president laid out his principles last night, and we’re willing to have a discussion, but those principles are going to inform the discussion.
This is a delicate time because I don’t think you want to start pre-negotiating or pre-discussing issues to the point where people say, well, there’s no point in even sitting down and talking about this stuff.
There’s not going to be a bipartisan agreement for him to veto. I think if there’s a bipartisan agreement that it’s going to be hammered out around the principles that he articulated last night or it’s probably not going to move forward.
Axelrod also emphatically rejected the rampant conventional wisdom that Obama was repositioning himself politically after the midterms to appeal to the center of the electorate, saying that Obama has always been a "progressive" but "he has never been particularly dogmatic."
I give you, as God is my witness, my word that we have not had a repositioning discussion here. We have not talked about let’s move three degrees to the right. That’s not the way we view this.
My reaction to the election is we have to go back to first principles and really think about what it is that drives us and what it is that has been so central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook, because some of that has been sort of ground down in the minutia of day-to-day governing here.
And it’s important to project your principles and not just your plans, because the plans don’t mean anything unless people know where you’re going. And so, I mean, there’s nothing that the president said last night that I couldn’t draw a straight line from to speeches that he has made way back to 2004.
There’s no doubt he is progressive in his outlook and that’s what he believes in.
But he has never been particularly dogmatic. That was true in the legislature. It was true when he was in the Senate. He has always been willing and able to work across party lines and find areas on which people could work together. His fundamental view is you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.
And so there was no sort of grand repositioning, there was just a desire to (a) make sure that we lead with our principles, and (b) look for opportunities, particularly in the new world in which we were living, to find those areas on which we can agree and move the country forward. And that’s what we did during that lame duck session. That’s what he wants to do now.
Axelrod admitted that some major topics were left out of Tuesday night’s speech. “His strong feeling was that last night’s speech should be focused as much as possible on the economy,” Axe said of the president. “And so it wasn’t the typical State of the Union speech, which is generally like seventy one-off issues connected by some weak connective tissue. This was an argument and it was an argument about a specific challenge facing the country.”
What to do about guns in the wake of Tucson was one of those missing issues. Axelrod promised the president “will engage in that in that debate…. this is an important issue and he’ll speak to it.”
The foreclosure crisis was another major omission. Axelrod said the administration would have more to say about housing “in the next few weeks.”
He also signaled the president would veto the House Republicans’ "No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act” if it passed the Senate. “His position on this issue is well known,” Axelrod said. “And we believe that it was addressed responsibly in the health care bill in the first place.”
After two grueling years in Washington, Axelrod is excited to soon be returning to Chicago, where he’ll advise the re-election campaign. “When I think about Washington, I think about what my mother used to say to me when I was a kid. She used to say, ‘I love you, I just hate the things you do.’”
And he had this piece of advice for incoming White House adviser David Plouffe: “I’m going to tell Plouffe, we’re doing great right now, don’t screw it up.”