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Government, Politics & Issues

At Webster University, Axelrod blasts political 'snipers on rooftops' attacking health-care law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: David Axelrod, the top adviser to President Barack Obama during his two successful bids for White House, is confident that decades from now, historians will view Obama as more than just the first African-American president.

But even if he is wrong, Axelrod said there’s no doubt that Obama’s stature as a ground-breaking political figure is significant.

“He ushered large numbers of Americans into fuller citizenship,’’ Axelrod said, referring to minorities who, he added, will definitely see more potential leaders following Obama’s lead.

Speaking to hundreds at Webster University, Axelrod said that Obama should be recognized as much for what he has done as for who he is.

Despite the continued political sparring over its features, Axelrod said that the Affordable Care Act – which will be fully implemented in 2014 – deserves to be seen as one of Obama’s major accomplishments.

While acknowledging that some tweaks may be needed, Axelrod said that the ACA’s promise of expanding access to health insurance, and making it more affordable to all, is already on its way to being fulfilled.

“Consumers have far more protections today than they did before the Affordable Care Act,’’ he said, citing the act’s abolition of insurance coverage caps, the requirement that children up to age 26 can stay on their families' policies and the fact that children can no longer be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. (The latter protection will be extended to adults in 2014.)

Axelrod offered that he understood the importance of expanding coverage for children, and cited the fact that he has a daughter with chronic health problems that have required expensive treatments and medications.

He also had strong words for the act's critics, whom he labeled “snipers on rooftops trying to make it not work, in the form of governors and members of Congress who’d like to see us fail.”

“But it’s important for the country that it succeed. And it ultimately will succeed,” Axelrod added.

Focus on health care in first term

Despite such booster talk, Axelrod allowed that he had some early misgivings about pursuing the health care issue, given the unexpected financial problems facing Obama when he took office in January 2009.

“The political part of my mind was saying ‘this is not something we should take on,’ ” Axelrod recalled.  Obama, he said, replied, “ ‘What are we here for?’ ”

Obama also was backed up by talk from his budget team, Axelrod said, who told him that the status quo was not financially sustainable when it came to the nation’s growing problems with health-care coverage and costs. One budget advisor said “the system will implode if we don’t do something.”

Axelrod’s hour-long appearance Friday was primarily in the form of a conversation, on stage, with Clifford Franklin, a staunch Obama supporter and chief executive of St. Louis-based Fuse Advertising.

Axelrod contended that history will treat Obama kindly over his handling of the 2008 financial crisis, which resulted in millions of lost jobs and devastated the finances for federal, state and local governments.

The nation’s financial system was “on the verge of collapse,’’ Axelrod said, while defending stimulus spending to shore needed government programs and state governments until the economy got back on track.

“Intervening to save the auto industry” was significant in saving the nation’s economy, Axelrod continued. He noted that the auto bailouts were unpopular at the time, but added that they are now seen as “the obvious thing to do.”

The supportive crowd applauded as Axelrod observed, “Saving the country from the prospect of a second Great Depression seems like a good day’s work.”

Details 2008 and 2012 campaigns

During his appearance, Axelrod detailed his 20-year friendship with Obama, which turned into a business relationship when Axelrod became a political advisor in 2002, as Obama began to plan his successful 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate.

Axelrod observed that Obama's skill at being "comfortable in any room he enters'' has helped him transcend the political challenges caused by his race and his name.

As an example, Axelrod recalled that during the difficult 2010 healthcare vote, an advisor gave middling odds of success, and asked the president if "he felt lucky." 

The audience roared as Axelrod recounted the president's reply: "I’m a black man named Barack Hussein Obama who’s president of the United States. I feel lucky every day.’’

Axelrod offered up details of Obama’s spirited presidential primary fight in 2008 with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the consultant avoided any criticisms of Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state during his first term and now is expected by many to run for the presidency again in 2016.

Axelrod laced some of his recollections with humor, such as when he recounted Obama’s decision in early 2008 to write and deliver a speech about race, as the presidential campaign was buffeted with the public circulation of video clips of some of the controversial sermons delivered by the candidate’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Although Obama had a full campaign schedule, Axelrod said the candidate insisted on crafting his own speech in response, which was to be delivered within just a couple days. 

Recalling one late night, Axelrod quipped, “He went off to his room to write. I went off to the bar to drink.”

Late that night, Axelrod said he read the final draft on his Blackberry. Axelrod said he replied to Obama via email, “ ‘This is why you should be president’… it was such an incisive, thoughtful, honest speech.”

Now overseeing public-policy center

Axelrod began his career as a journalist, covering politics for the Chicago Tribune. He dove into politics himself in 1984, when he joined the campaign of then-Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., who Axelrod noted was known for his ethics and independent thinking.

Axelrod then became a political consultant, with a long client list that, pre-Obama, included Simon and two Chicago mayors: the late Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley.

Since Obama's re-election, Axelrod has returned to Chicago and his family, and says he has no plans to work for any other politician.

Axelrod now is a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC, and also is deeply involved as the overseer of the new, nonpartisan Institute of Politics set up at his alma mater, the University of Chicago.

Axelrod said the center's aim is to encourage young people to enter the world of public service, government and politics. 

His message? "If you don't get in and try to influence that debate, then you have to live with the consequences."

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