STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
President Obama's campaign adviser, David Axelrod, says the president won't be holding back in his next debate on this coming Tuesday.
INSKEEP: Axelrod was in Washington yesterday and came by our studios. He's been talking with the president after last week's debate that wrenched the campaign in Mitt Romney's direction.
MONTAGNE: That movement is clearly reflected in polls. Analysts have found that surveys on average have moved three or four points in Romney's direction. Some polls moved even more, enough to give Romney a lead.
INSKEEP: Although as we'll hear, Axelrod is playing the effects. A look at the electoral map shows a president who still has an advantage - though less than he did. We asked Axelrod about widespread commentary that the president's debate performance showed a man isolated from tough questions, as presidents often are.
DAVID AXELROD: Well, I don't know about that. First of all, we went through the longest and most competitive campaign for president in history...
INSKEEP: In 2008.
AXELROD: In 2008, and the president has taken on - not only has he taken on tough questions, but he's taking on some enormously tough issues.
INSKEEP: You think that he has been exposed to opposing points of view and that he was accustomed to the kind of attack he was under...
AXELROD: Well, I think what he wasn't accustomed to was someone who kind of serially and shamelessly tried to reposition himself in front of the American people and running away from his firm commitments on a whole range of issues. I think that was...
INSKEEP: Was he surprised?
AXELROD: Yes. I think that the audacity of it was surprising to him. I myself have never seen anything like it. You know, for Governor Romney to say, gee, I have no idea what he's talking about, about tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. I don't know that those exist. Maybe I need new accountants. Steve, one thing I can assure you is the last thing that Governor Romney needs are new accountants. His accountants do very well for him. He takes advantage of every last deduction. He knows very well what the tax laws are.
INSKEEP: Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast after watching that debate posed the question: Is the president tired being of president? Didn't seem like his heart was in it in Tomasky's view.
AXELROD: You know what? I'm with him a lot. I talk to him late at night and early in the morning sometimes. This president is as committed and as passionate as the day we met, you know, 20 years ago, when he was - when we were talking about the plight of the middle class, how we build a strong economy, how we see to it that our kids get educated, and you know, we've come through a difficult time. We all remember what it was like when he became president. We were losing 800,000 jobs a month, the quarter before he got here, the worst economic quarter for the country since the Great Depression. And we've built back together - the president and the American people - whether it was restoring the auto industry or any of the other initiatives that have helped bring us back to where we're creating five - we've created five million jobs in the last 31 months. Unemployment rate, as everybody knows, is coming down. But we have so much more to do - not just to get more jobs but to make sure that work pays and that we get greater security or restore security for the middle class. He is absolutely determined to see that agenda through and that we not go back to the kind of policies that got us into this mess in the first place.
INSKEEP: He's eager for four more years of battling Republicans in Congress?
AXELROD: He's eager for four more years of moving this country forward, Steve. Because despite those battles, there are so many things that he's been able to do that had been so meaningful in terms of pulling us out of the mess that we were in and pointing us in the right direction. I mentioned the auto industry. I mean he, you know, he made a decision to intervene, it wasn't politically popular at the time. Governor Romney said, famously, let Detroit go bankrupt.
AXELROD: Now that the auto industry is roaring back. There are a million-plus people working today because of that decision. That is why he does the work. So is he looking forward to making additional progress in the next four years? Yes.
INSKEEP: One other criticism you could make of the president in that debate is that he walked in, he didn't want to criticize Governor Romney too directly - for whatever reason - and that left him with relatively little to say if he was not criticizing his opponent.
AXELROD: Well, I don't think that the American people necessarily are looking for him to come in and criticize his opponent. I think it's...
AXELROD: It's fair commentary to say that he could have done more to challenge Governor Romney on some of these audacious changes of - or, you know, pretense of changes of position...
INSKEEP: But I'm asking about the flipside of that. Is he having some difficulty in sketching out for people in a clear way what he would do with a second term?
AXELROD: I don't think so at all. And I think if you travel around with him all over this country, Steve, there's no question about where he wants to lead this country. I think audiences all over the country are hearing that message. The reason the president has been ahead consistently in this election is because his vision, his values are more consistent with those of people across the country who understand that if we're going to rebuild this economy, it starts with a strong, thriving middle class, that we can't simply cut our way to prosperity, that tax cuts for the wealthy and rolling back the rules on Wall Street isn't a formula for a better future. It's a formula that takes us right back to the mess we were in. People understand that.
INSKEEP: A couple of others things I want ask about, Mr. Axelrod. There have been a lot of public polls out in the last several days. They've all moved in the same direction - they've moved in Romney's direction - but there are differences, there are subtleties among them. What is a number that you have seen in the public surveys that you would point me to that you believe in meaningful?
AXELROD: Well, there are so many polls and many of them are contradictory, but in all the data that I've seen, there's no doubt that Governor Romney got a bump off of his debate performance. I think it's probably in the neighborhood of one or two points nationally and in these battleground states. But Steve, we've always believed that this was going to be a close race, whether I've talked to you or anyone else throughout this race.
INSKEEP: Al Gore in 2000 had a debate that was problematic, to say the least, for him in the first debate, and then the whole rest of the debate season became a question about how Al Gore was going to do; it really got in his way. How do you avoid that happening with the president?
AXELROD: I think the president merely needs to go out and be himself and be that passionate advocate that he is and draws those distinctions with Governor Romney as fast as Governor Romney's is trying to backpedal from some of his positions. I think that he'll do fine, and I'm sure he will.
INSKEEP: One other thing, David Axelrod - the president referred to Abraham Lincoln in the first debate. That's a president he mentions a lot. He seems to think about Abe Lincoln a lot. And this is a president who in that debate seemed reluctant to lash out at his opponent. Abraham Lincoln, as historians have noted, had a habit of getting upset with someone, writing them a letter that might be a very strong letter and then sticking it in a desk - never sending it. I'm interested if metaphorically the president has been sticking a lot of letters in the desk?
AXELROD: Well, I don't know, Steve. I think mostly what he's doing is thinking about the opportunity that he has coming up next Tuesday and the opportunity for the next 30 days to continue to make the case for the kind of future that he sees and laying out the steps that we need to get there. He really feels so strongly that his views and Governor Romney's are so divergent and they lead to distinctly different places. And so he wants to take advantage of the opportunities he has left to continue to make that case.
INSKEEP: I'm asking if he's holding in something or holding back something that he's thinking right now.
AXELROD: No. I think that, you know, he is not a - I don't think this a period for navel gazing. This is a period for retrenchment. And you know, he believes deeply in the things that he's fighting for. He understands what Governor Romney's trying to do right now in obfuscating his own positions. And he's going to hold him to account and he's going to make the strong case for his positions. I don't think he's holding back and I don't think the candidate you see on the stage on Tuesday will be holding back.
INSKEEP: David Axelrod, thanks very much.
AXELROD: Great to be with you, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: David Axelrod is a longtime adviser to President Obama. By the way, we've also invited advisers to Mitt Romney on the program. Hope to hear from them in the next few days. The next debate is between the vice presidential candidates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. That comes tonight in Danville, Kentucky. Many NPR stations will bring you that debate live, and we will have full coverage tomorrow here on the program. We're glad that your public radio station brings you MORNING EDITION. You can continue following us throughout the day on social media. We're on Facebook, we're on Twitter. You can find us, among other places, @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.