(Source: NBC’s Meet the Press)
MR. GREGORY: And turning back home, we are now joined from Chicago by senior adviser to President-elect Obama, David Axelrod. Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
MR. DAVID AXELROD: Thanks, David. Good to be here.
MR. GREGORY: What is the president-elect’s position on this offensive against Gaza by Israel?
MR. AXELROD: Well, obviously, it’s a very serious situation. He spent some time on the phone with Secretary Rice yesterday, and he is monitoring the situation. But we’ve said repeatedly through this transition period that we–there’s only one president at a time, and President Bush speaks for the United States of America until January 20th, and we’re going to honor that moving forward.
MR. GREGORY: But in the course of the campaign, the now president-elect visited Sderot…
MR. AXELROD: He did.
MR. GREGORY: …in fact, in southern Israel, and he said that Israel had a right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas.
MR. AXELROD: Indeed, he did.
MR. GREGORY: Does he believe it’s appropriate for Israel, if it takes his decision, to push Hamas from power?
MR. AXELROD: He did, as you said, visit Sderot in July, and he said then that he thought that when bombs are raining, raining down on your citizens, it is–it’s obviously unacceptable and there is an urge to act. And so–but again, I don’t want to go beyond that because we only have one government and one president at a time. And he’s going to continue to consult with Secretary Rice and the president and the administration on this and monitor these events. And he’ll be prepared to take over on the 20th and, and, and discharge his responsibilities then.
MR. GREGORY: OK. Let’s move on to the ongoing saga of Governor Rod Blagojevich in Illinois and questions about the vacancy left and created by the president-elect in that Senate seat. This week the Obama team released a report that was compiled by incoming White House counsel Greg Craig to detail what contacts the Obama team had with Governor Blagojevich or his aides. And this was the conclusion to the report as compiled and, and put together by Greg Craig. “The accounts of Obama transition staff contain no indication of inappropriate discussions with the governor or anyone from his office about a `deal’ or a quid pro quo arrangement in which he would receive a personal benefit in return for any specific appointment to fill the Senate vacancy.”
Now, back on December 17th, the president-elect seemed a bit frustrated, in fact, that he wasn’t able to do more to shed light on this situation. This is what he said then.
President-elect BARACK OBAMA: It’s a little bit frustrating. There’s been a lot of speculation in the press that I would love to correct immediately. We are abiding by the request of the U.S. attorneys office, but it’s not going to be that long. By next week you guys will have the answers to all your questions.
MR. GREGORY: And yet, there are still lingering questions. There are no notes provided. There are no transcripts of the interviews that Mr. Craig did with aides to the president-elect. This is just a four-page narrative that was released two days before Christmas. Is this consistent with the promise of, of a–an historic level of transparency by the Obama team?
MR. AXELROD: Well, David, the–first of all, the reason it was released two days before Christmas was because we were abiding by a request from the U.S. attorneys office, and we released it when they told us we, we could release it. They also reviewed it. But it reflects the full record of, of contacts between members of the transition around the president-elect and, and, and Governor Blagojevich’s office. And it reflects everything that the president-elect has said about it. There’s really nothing more to it. There were conversations, there was no discussion of a quid pro quo. President-elect sent a, a list of names over there of, of many people in our state who he felt would be good representatives of the state, and that was the extent of it.
MR. GREGORY: Will the president-elect produce those notes and transcripts with staff interviews, as well as, perhaps, hold a press conference to answer any question associated with this?
MR. AXELROD: Well, obviously, he’s going to be holding press conferences, and you guys are free to ask whatever you want to ask. This is a–there, there’s nothing more, really, to release. The, the story is reflected in that, in that narrative, and I think that events moving forward will, will support that.
MR. GREGORY: So no to the idea of, of releasing notes or transcripts from the investigation internally?
MR. AXELROD: David, you’ve got, you’ve got the full narrative of, of what happened. It’s, it’s a complete account of all those contacts.
MR. GREGORY: Let’s move into some of the substance. In the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. attorney, the following is written: “On November 11th, 2008, Rod Blagojevich talked with John Harris,” that was his chief of staff, “about the Senate seat,” again, the one being vacated by the president-elect. “Blagojevich said he knows that the president-elect wants Senate Candidate 1,” we find out later that that’s Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president-elect, “for the Senate seat but `they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Bleep them.’” The USA Today editorialized that exchange this way: “Obama’s report says none of his aides was offered any illegal pay-to-play deal, so there would not have been anything to report to authorities. That might well be true, but it doesn’t quite explain how Blagojevich knew that all the Obama people intended to give him was `appreciation.’ Doesn’t that suggest the governor or his aides at least hinted at” wanted “something more?” Do you have an answer to that?
MR. AXELROD: No. The–I don’t think that the governor’s people hinted that they wanted something. There, there was no discussion of quid pro quos. There was no–and by the way, I mean, my contact with the president-elect never suggested that he was pushing one particular candidate over another. Valerie Jarrett, who was identified as, as the Senate Candidate 1, is a close friend and adviser to the president-elect. He wanted her in the White House. I never heard him express an interest in putting her in the Senate.
MR. GREGORY: And yet there was a conversation that Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chief of staff, had with both Governor Blagojevich and his chief of staff during which there was a conversation about whether there would be anything beyond appreciation from the president-elect, and Rahm Emanuel apparently said no, nothing more than that, just, just appreciation. So there was no feeling among Obama’s inner circle here that there was some hint, some suggestion that they wanted more?
MR. AXELROD: No, there was not. There was not. And this, of course, was the subject of interviews with the, the U.S. attorney. There was never any suggestion at, that I heard discussed, of any interest in a quid pro quo. No one could have imagined the scenario that unfolded after that.
MR. GREGORY: Did you or anybody working for the president-elect speak to the U.S. attorney or other investigators about contacts with the governor’s office prior to the criminal charges being brought? In other words, did anything come to light in your dealings with the governor’s office that made you report to authorities?
MR. AXELROD: Well, I personally had no contacts with the governor’s office. But no, absolutely not. There was no reason to believe that there was any–anything unusual or untoward going on that would require a contact with the U.S. attorneys office.
MR. GREGORY: We know that the president-elect also sat down for an interview with the U.S. attorney. What was the nature of that interview?
MR. AXELROD: Well, he–they just–they wanted to know anything that he knew about it. As he–as was described in the report that was released, he had no contact with the governor or the governor’s staff. He had some conversations with his own staff. Those were all reflected in that, in that report. And they just wanted to, to, to probe and see if there’s anything more he could add.
MR. GREGORY: Bottom line, does the president-elect believe that the governor of Illinois was attempting to sell his Senate seat, in effect, to the highest bidder?
MR. AXELROD: Well, David, I’m not going to answer that question. I mean, obviously we’re all reading the same accounts, and this is the subject of a criminal investigation. So we’ll see how that all–how, how that all turns out. But it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to answer that question.
MR. GREGORY: Let me turn to issue one for this new administration, and that, of course, is the economy. Lawrence Summers, who is the incoming director of national–the National Economic Council penned an op-ed piece for The Washington Post today in which he promises big things from this administration. Let’s put it on the screen for our viewers. “In this crisis, doing too little,” he writes, “poses a greater threat than doing too much. Any sound economic strategy in the current context must be directed at both creating the jobs that Americans need and doing the work that our economy requires. Any plan geared toward only one of these objectives would be dangerously deficient. Failure to create enough jobs in the short term would put the prospect of recovery at risk. Failure to start undertaking necessary long-term investments would endanger the foundation of our recovery and, ultimately, our children’s prosperity.”
Rahm Emanuel, who we talked about just a moment ago, said that you don’t want to waste a serious crisis. By that he meant there were short, short-term problems you can address, but also long-term problems that were ignored for too long that you can also tackle. What does the president-elect hope and intend to do in the first few weeks to try to restore confidence?
MR. AXELROD: Well, I think it’s, it’s absolutely essential that we move not just to restore confidence–and that’s, that’s important–but to do substantive things that will get this economy moving again. The other thing that Larry Summers said in that piece was that, untended, that we could be looking at double-digit unemployment by the end of next year, and that’s something nobody wants to see. So we have to act–every economist from left to right agrees that we have to do something big in terms of job creation, but we want to do it in a way that will leave a lasting footprint. So we’re talking about investing in alternative energy projects that will help us achieve energy independence. We’re talking about rebuilding the nation’s classrooms to bring them into the 21st century, and labs and libraries so our kids can compete. Health: In the area of health, IT, so that we can computerize medical records, which will cut costs, reduce errors and improve, and improve care. And of course, infrastructure…
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. AXELROD: …rebuilding our crumbling bridges and roads and waterways. These are things that will put people to work, but also that will strengthen our economy in the long run, and that’s where we’re focusing our attention.
MR. GREGORY: As the economy quickly deteriorates and continues to move in the wrong direction almost on a daily basis, has the president-elect changed his view about taxes? And by that I mean has he made a decision to put off any tax increases or even a middle-class tax cut, as he talked about for the, for the short term?
MR. AXELROD: No. Look, we feel it’s important that, that middle-class people get some relief now. He’s promised a middle-class tax cut. This package will include a, a portion of that tax cut that will become part of the permanent tax cut he’ll have in his, his upcoming budget. It’s, it’s, it’s vital people are, are–need money in their pockets to, to spend. That’ll help get our economy going again.
MR. GREGORY: But will you hold off on any tax increases?
MR. AXELROD: Well, look, the question is on the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans, and it’s something that we plainly can’t afford moving forward. And whether it, it, it expires or whether we repeal it a little bit early we’ll determine later, but it’s going to go. It has to go.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but that is an increase. You’re saying you won’t–you would just let it expire, you wouldn’t try to repeal it early?
MR. AXELROD: I’m saying we’ll make that decision moving forward here.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but you’re not–because the commitment was to, to lower those taxes to definitely–excuse me, I mean to raise those taxes on people by letting those tax cuts expire. You’re saying you’ll hold on and see. You won’t make a decision yet.
MR. AXELROD: Yes, I’m saying that. But I’m also–I also want to stress that what the president-elect proposed during the campaign amounted to a net tax cut. In other words, when you add up the tax cuts and the change–the expiration or the repeal of, of the tax cut for the wealthy, it’ll amount to a net tax cut for the American people. It’ll just restore some balance, David, which we badly need.
MR. GREGORY: Let me turn, in our remaining moments, to the issue of politics. I don’t have to tell you that the president-elect has been criticized by some of his supporters for naming Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration, the evangelical figure, preacher, pastor in California who is opposed to gay rights and supported Prop 8 in California, which overturned gay rights in California. Frank Rich in The New York Times wrote this that was critical of the president-elect this morning. “Obama may not only overestimate his ability to bridge some of our fundamental differences but also underestimate how persistent some of those differences are. … When Obama defends Warren’s words by calling them an example of the `wide range of viewpoints’ in a `diverse and noisy and opinionated’ America, he is being too cute by half. He knows full well that a `viewpoint’ defaming any minority group by linking it to sexual crimes like pedophilia is unacceptable.” Let me just point out that Rick Warren did liken gay marriage to a brother and sister marrying or to an older guy marrying a daughter. Do you think that the president-elect has risked offending the very people who put him into office?
MR. AXELROD: Well, look, Rick Warren and the president-elect have had a dialogue for some, some time, David. They’ve had a dialogue about things on which they agree, such as fighting poverty and reducing the terrible plight of–the terrible disease that, that crosses Africa. And they’ve, and they’ve had a dialogue about things on which they disagree, such as civil rights for gays and lesbians and a woman’s right to choose. But the important point here is that you have a conservative evangelical pastor who’s coming to participate in the inauguration of a progressive president, and this is a healthy thing and a good thing for our country. We have to be–we have to find ways to work together on the things on which we do agree, even when we profoundly disagree on other things. And that’s how we are going to build bridges of understanding and move this country forward. And that’s what Barack Obama promised as a candidate. That’s what he’s going to deliver as president.
MR. GREGORY: But is–isn’t the question for all those progressives, all of those new registrants to the Democratic Party, when you promised a progressive presidency with a progressive candidate, and then you get this. Pat Robertson, the televangelist who said in praise of Obama this week, “I am remarkably pleased with Obama. … He’s picked a middle-of-the-road Cabinet.” Again, do you think Obama supporters would think that that’s the kind of praise they want to hear?
MR. AXELROD: David, we’ve got to get beyond this sort of politics where we’re each on the jagged edge of a great divide, shaking our fists at each other. We do have a great Cabinet. We’re proud of that Cabinet. It’s diverse. It represents great talent and experience from inside Washington and outside Washington. It’s going to move this country forward. And if that pleases people, whether they’re from the right or the left, that’s fine. But the, the bottom line is watch what we do, watch the policies that we implement. We’re going to move this country forward.
MR. GREGORY: Has Barack Obama become a moderate now that he’s become president?
MR. AXELROD: I think Barack Obama–one of the great virtues of Barack Obama is consistency. He is exactly who he’s always been. He’s always worked across ideological lines, partisan lines to try and achieve progressive goals, and that’s what he’s going to do as president.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, let’s talk about your role in the White House. The last major political figure in a campaign to have a big portfolio in the White House was, of course, Karl Rove. You’ve described your role this way. “I’m a kibitzer with a broad portfolio.” Here’s my question: Will you begin working on Barack Obama’s re-election from day one?
MR. AXELROD: No, I’m working on–my, my job, David, is, is different from Mr. Rove’s job was. I see my job simply as helping disseminate the message of Barack Obama, working with the communications team to make sure that we’re true to the, to, to the ideals and the values and the programs that he wants to advance in this country. And that, that’s the extent of my involvement. We’ve got plenty of good talented, political people who, who are not coming into the administration. And when the time comes, we’ll run the campaign. But our, our, our view is that we’ve got tremendous challenges in this country right now, and what we should be thinking about is how we’re going to address those and not the next election. And if we do that well, the next election will take care of itself.
MR. GREGORY: Are you saying you’re not interested in political realignment in this country that would help to achieve those goals that you hope to achieve?
MR. AXELROD: David, I’m interested in–and we as an administration are interested in solving these profound problems that are facing the American people right now. And, you know, there’s an old saying that good, good government is good politics. I think that’s more true today then ever. The American people are not looking for more politics, they’re looking for solutions, and that’s what we want to provide.
MR. GREGORY: David Axelrod in Chicago this morning. Happy new year and thank you for coming on.
MR. AXELROD: Happy new year to you. Thank you.