White House senior adviser David Axelrod said that President Obama and members of his administration have emerged emboldened by their victory on health care reform, but cautioned that the entire administration also learned a lesson from the months of fierce debate over their top domestic priority.
"What I think we learned," Axelrod said in an interview with Charlie Rose, "is not to trim yourselves in making your case, to take it right to the American people, to be open and to challenge the other side to put their ideas on the table."
Axelrod, the president's chief message guru who critics said let the health care debate spiral out of the White House's control at times, said the president still has more work to do in selling the bill, which he signed into law on Tuesday, to the American people.
"I came to the conclusion months ago, and I said it to members of Congress, that the only way people are going to fully appreciate what this reform is if we pass it and implement it and it becomes not a caricature but a reality, and I still believe that," Axelrod said. "So I think it will be easier to sell it moving forward than it was to this point."
The administration's approach to pushing their post-health-care agenda would be different, Axelrod said:
Charlie Rose: Does that mean, for example, that in terms of whatever big issue you are attacking head-on, you are going to turn your guy loose, so to speak, you're going to say, "Let Obama be Obama?"
David Axelrod: Well, we're certainly going to do that, but I think -- and I think he would insist -- but I think the other things is that we are going to demand that those who oppose what we are trying to do put their ideas on the table. And it may be at some points that we will find areas of convergence that will be -- help the country in a very positive way. I think on this health care bill, as I suggested, some of the major concepts were ones that Republicans had found.
He also acknowledged that internally he and other members of the administration, at times, had doubts that they could reach the finish line on health care, particularly after the Democrats' stinging defeat last fall in Massachusetts.
Charlie Rose: Was there a moment you thought you might not be able to make it?
David Axelrod: Oh my God, this -- you know, this thing -- Phil Schiliro, the absolutely magnificent legislative director for the president, told him at the beginning, "Mr. President, health insurance reform will die five times before you sign this bill." And the only thing he was wrong about was there were probably many more than five where we thought, "Geez, is this the end of the road?" The only guy who said, "You know what? We're going to find a way to get this done," was the president, and he even, after Massachusetts -- after the Massachusetts Primary, which was viewed as such a blow, his attitude was we just have to figure out how to navigate our way through this and regroup.
Axelrod, who has been called the president's alter-ego, described Obama as a "warrior" as well as a "commonsensical person" and a "consensus builder" who managed to incorporate Republican and well as Democratic ideas into the final health care bill. And even though the legislation passed without a single Republican vote, he said he still hoped President Obama could bridge partisan divides in Washington.
"I haven't given up on working ... across the aisle on issues and maybe it'll take an election or two for that to fully ferment, maybe it you know sometimes it takes awhile for people to realize what the best path is," he said. "I think that more and more you're going to see people of good will on their side of the aisle say you know what, we got to get off the bus here, this is not headed in the right direction."
In the interview with Rose, Axelrod also reflected on his own family's struggle with the health care system. He and his wife Susan are the parents of a daughter, Lauren, who has epilepsy.
"I have a daughter with a chronic health condition. And when I was a young reporter, I almost went broke because she -- I couldn't -- my HMO would not cover her care and all the out of pocket expenses were somewhat more than we could bear," Axelrod said. "And I was thinking about her and the other families who weren't as fortunate as we were at that time. And in the future, they won't face that."
On a personal level, Axelrod also said the president "was happier on Sunday night when this bill passed" than he was even on Election Day in 2008.
"I'm certain of it," Axelrod said. "And I asked him about it the next day. And he said, 'Oh yeah, that's right.' He said, 'Because the election only gives you the possibility of doing things, but this was a tangible, big important thing that we could do for the country, and we got it done and that's far more satisfying.'"
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