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."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama's senior campaign adviser lobbed a dig at Mitt Romney this week. David Axelrod tweeted a photo of the president with his dog Bo. It shows Mr. Obama sitting with the animal in the back of a plush-looking car. The caption: How loving owners transport their dogs, a perhaps not-so-subtle reference to the story of Romney putting his Irish setter in a crate tied to the roof of the family car years ago for a vacation road trip. With Republicans on his mind, David Axelrod talked with Steve Inskeep about the presidential campaign.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Welcome to the program again.
DAVID AXELROD: Great to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: I want to ask you: if Mitt Romney becomes the Republican nominee, are you likely(ph) to recycle negative campaign ads that Newt Gingrich has used in the last few weeks?
AXELROD: Well, I don't like to think of myself as recycling anything that Newt Gingrich has offered here in that way. But look, there are legitimate arguments that have been raised, legitimate questions that are obviously going to be part of this. Governor Romney's running on his record in business. Seems to be running away from his record as governor. That's the nature of presidential campaigns. Everything gets scrutinized and everything gets debated.
INSKEEP: Republicans, of course, have very much enjoyed noting that this week is the third anniversary of the president's remark on television regarding the economy: If I don't have this done in three years, then this is going to be a one-term proposition. How can your guy win if a majority of Americans continue to disapprove of his handling of the economy, which has been the case for quite some time?
AXELROD: Well, I think if you look at where we were when he made that comment and where we are today, it's a vastly different situation. Remember, when we came to office, we lost almost 800,000 jobs - the worst period of the recession. And if you look at what happened in the months after and the years after his policies took effect, we've had 22 months of positive job growth. I don't think there's anyone who can argue that we should go back to where we were before - anybody, I should say, other than all of these Republican candidates.
INSKEEP: Although, I mean the president's words, if I don't have this done in three years, then this is going to be a one-term proposition. You're saying he doesn't have it done after three years.
AXELROD: I'm saying that the president said that we need to turn the economy around and show real improvement in three years, and I think we have shown improvement. I'm not in any way suggesting that we don't have more work to do, nor is he.
INSKEEP: Well, what do you think has happened in states that the president, somewhat unexpectedly in some cases, won in 2008 where he seems to be in deep trouble now - Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia - all states that he won in 2008 and it would be hard to find an analyst who is certain that the president is going to win all three of those states again.
AXELROD: Well, look, I think certainty is a hard thing to come by in American politics.
INSKEEP: I think it'd be hard to find an analyst who thinks he's got a good shot.
AXELROD: We're closely divided. All of the polling I've seen lately from North Carolina, Virginia, shows the president holding his own and doing well. But believe me, Steve, I anticipate that every one of these states is going to be hotly contested, and we're not taking anything for granted at all.
INSKEEP: Indiana, which maybe was the most unexpected win for you in 2008, you expect to contest that seriously in 2012?
AXELROD: Well, I'm not ruling any states in or out. Obviously, Indiana was the first time that Hoosiers had voted for a Democratic candidate, I think, since 1964. So we recognize that that is a challenge and it's, you know, to replicate it would be a real feat. But at this juncture I'm not ruling anything in or out.
INSKEEP: I want to come back to the Florida primary, where you had two principal candidates, was a brutally negative campaign on both sides. It actually depressed voter turnout. Is it reasonable that that is going to be the shape or at least part of the shape of the fall campaign? You're going to have two candidates, it's going to be a brutal campaign, and a lot of people may be disgusted by it by the end.
AXELROD: I can only speak for out campaign, Steve. You know, I'm not very encouraged by what I see on the other side. Take Governor Romney, for example. He has his superPAC and they were the major players in all these early primary states. The superPAC is run by the guy who created the Willie Horton ad back in 1988. It's funded in part by a fellow who was the major funder behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Troops, so called, in 2004 that slimed John Kerry in an inexcusable way.
INSKEEP: Although we have to point out that Democratic groups have already been running negative ads and it's not even the general election yet. Surely it is going to be a pretty harsh campaign this fall.
AXELROD: Well, any closely contested race in American politics can become edgy. And I, you know, and I'm not Pollyannaish about that. I understand that. But at the end of the day, the candidate who's going to win is not the candidate who is the most negative; it's the candidate who has the most compelling vision for the kind of country and the kind of economy in which the future is brighter.
INSKEEP: Final thing - and I have to ask this because the president sang a few lines of an Al Green song the other day, Mitt Romney sang "America the Beautiful" at a campaign stop the other day. How would you compare President Obama and Governor Romney as singing talents?
AXELROD: Well, let me say this about Governor Romney's singing. He likes to sing "America the Beautiful" but he always omits one verse that I think is one of the more meaningful verses. It's not as well-known a verse but it's: America, America, God shed His grace on thee, 'til selfish gain no longer stains the banner of the free. I think he should not only sing that verse but contemplate the meaning of it.
INSKEEP: David Axelrod, presidential adviser. Thank you very much.
AXELROD: All right. Great to be with you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.