Joe Klein interviewed David Axelrod at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday. It was an outstanding session. Klein explained that he and Axelrod were friends; he did not need to explain that he, Klein, has also been an Obama supporter. But he asked–and kept pressing–pointed, difficult questions about Obama’s unforceful leadership. It was a memorable proof of how a sympathetic and courteous interviewer can be a more probing and more dangerous interlocutor than a straightforward enemy.
Axelrod of course is unflappable. He sustained his note of immovable calm and reason throughout: we take the long view, the pragmatic view; in extremely difficult circumstances, made more difficult by an intemperate and unreasoning opposition, we make progress where we can; being loud is not the same thing as being effective; look at our record of achievement (fiscal stimulus, financial reform, health-care-reform, education reform); we will let history be the judge. But Klein kept coming back. Obama is failing to explain himself, failing to make his case. Where is the president on this? Where is the president on that? His rhetorical skills are clear. Why isn’t he using them? Good questions. I felt that Axelrod had no answer.
Klein said that Obama has cut taxes three times, and people are unaware of it. Klein had talked to somebody at a town meeting who told him she had recently noticed that the government had debited $250 to her bank account and she didn’t know why. Turned out it was a payment arising from the decision to close the so-called doughnut hole in Medicare coverage. When George Bush did something similar, checks were sent out with the president’s signature on them. This administration silently debited the cash. It’s bad politics, said Klein.
Axelrod replied that the White House was more interested in results than marketing: “You want us to be more exploitative?” No, said Klein, exasperated: just explain yourselves! (He might also have asked: What kind of political strategist is uninterested in marketing? What is political strategy, if not in part a kind of marketing?)
What have you learned about communicating, and moving people out of entrenched positions?, Klein asked. It’s about patience and pragmatism and being a good listener, Axelrod said, the standard theme. But he went on to say there are times when you have to make a strong declaration about what the arguments add up to and what is really at stake. There will be more of that in future, he said. The election of 2012 will be about where we are heading as a country. When our campaign is engaged, it will be very passionate. We understand how consequential this election will be. There will be no passion deficit (a member of the audience had suggested that term) next year.
Maybe so. But a bit more passion on budget reform, health care reform, energy policy and the rest would not have been amiss this year, or last year, or the year before…
In the margins of the discussion, Axelrod told a story about the president’s own unflappability. Axelrod had been drafted in to write some jokes for Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The script included a crack about how Tim Pawlenty would be a strong opponent but for the fact that his middle name is Bin Laden. Obama said that “Bin Laden” was tired, “too yesterday”: let’s make it “Hosni” instead. Axelrod was puzzled. That didn’t seem so funny. But so be it, he thought, Obama is the boss. The point was that Obama knew what was afoot in Pakistan, and Axelrod and the others didn’t. Obama was betting his presidency on an audacious mission, undertaken moreover against the advice of the military to bomb the compound. Yet he was so calm and collected that nobody suspected something might be going on.
Whatever you might think about the leadership deficit, I don’t think you can quarrel with Axelrod’s assessment that Obama is a remarkable man.
Update: Here’s the video.