CNN

February 22nd, 2011

David Axelrod: Rahm is a guy – I always say, he’s like a heat-seeking missile

CNN’s chief national correspondent and anchor John King was in Chicago this afternoon to report on the mayoral race.  King sat down at Manny’s Cafeteria with David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, to discuss the mayoral race, Chicago politics and Wisconsin. The second part of the interview with David Axelrod will air tomorrow on John King, USA — 7pm ET. Transcript is after the jump and on CNN.com.

Video Part II: CNN’s John King asks David Axelrod, former White House adviser, about the 2012 GOP field in an exclusive interview.

MANDATORY CREDIT: JOHN KING, USA

HIGHLIGHTED TRANSCRIPT
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KING:  Any doubt that your friend will be the next mayor?

AXELROD:  I think he’s going to be the next mayor.  You know, Chicago is a town that appreciates kind of strength, larger-than-life characters, can do people.  And that’s who Rahm is.  Rahm is a guy who — I always say, he’s like a heat-seeking missile.  Whatever he puts his mind to, he gets done.

And you need that kind of leadership in a big city today.  So I think people recognize that, and he’s going to do very well whether he does it in one election or two.  We’ll find out tonight.  But I’m very confident he’s going to be the next mayor.

FULL TRANSCRIPT
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: That’s Manny’s Deli and Coffee Shop in beautiful downtown Chicago.  For the two years he was in Washington, the White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod said he could not wait to get back home to go to his favorite eating hut.  There, he says he likes to bounce ideas off everyday Chicagoans.

Well, David Axelrod is home now.  We are days from a possible government shutdown here in Washington.  We are watching dramatic political stories in the states as new governors face-off with public employees’ unions.  And David Axelrod is tracking all that while building the president’s re-election campaign operation.

In an exclusive conversation today, here’s part one.  We’ll have part two tomorrow.  We talked about why he loves Manny’s and what’s happening in today’s politics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING:  Tell me why this place is so important to you.

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER:  This place is important to me because it is like the perfect sort of meeting place for Chicago.  Chicago is a very diverse city, you know, and you get people from all walks of life.

And I started coming here 35 years ago when I was a young newspaper reporter, not just because I love the food, and I do love the food, but because you can run into an incredible cross section of people.  You can — I can walk in here and I’d see mobsters sitting at one table, prosecutors at another.  Occasionally, prosecutors and mobsters sitting at the same table.

You know, rich people, poor people, black, white, Hispanic.  Just a real cross section, and it was a great place to hang out and talk to people, learn from people and, you know, I’d come over here when big news was breaking.  I’d get a truer sense of how everything was playing.

So I always — I told you before, I joke that I come here to clog my arteries and clear my head.  And so, to me it’s very real.

KING:  This is your birthday.  Happy birthday.

AXELROD:  Thank you.

KING:  Perhaps fitting a dramatic change election in your city happens on your birthday.

AXELROD:  Yes.

KING:  Any doubt that your friend will be the next mayor?

AXELROD:  I think he’s going to be the next mayor.  You know, Chicago is a town that appreciates kind of strength, larger-than-life characters, can do people.  And that’s who Rahm is.  Rahm is a guy who — I always say, he’s like a heat-seeking missile.  Whatever he puts his mind to, he gets done.

And you need that kind of leadership in a big city today.  So I think people recognize that, and he’s going to do very well whether he does it in one election or two.  We’ll find out tonight.  But I’m very confident he’s going to be the next mayor.

KING:  How much — how much — as someone who’s covered this town and worked the politics of this town, how much has the criticism of Rahm, about him and just, you know, campaign, were running against him.  That’s the way it goes.  How much of it is sort of grudge matches. People here who maybe don’t have the best relationship with the president or the best political relationship with the president.

AXELROD:  Look, I think that there — there is — there is a segment of a city council, for example, that has been pinched under the leadership of a strong mayor for the last 21 years.  And Daly, they would like more say so.  The prospect of Rahm isn’t necessarily pleasing prospect for them.

So, you know, and, you know, there are all kinds of rivalries and so on.  And, of course, — but ultimately, it’s politics and, you know, people are — it’s — being mayor of Chicago is a great job.  People are competing very hard for it.  And they’re going to say and do whatever they can to try and advantage themselves.  That’s nothing new.

And you know Rahm has been through, as George W. Bush used to say, this isn’t his first rodeo.  He’s been through this before.  And I think he’s handled it very well.

KING:  You’ve been back home for a little bit now, not too long, but just a little bit.  What is your first gut check here about the president and both his — from a policy and a communications standpoint– I mean, what lessons when you came back here people say, you know, David, no.

AXELROD:  Well, you know, the funny thing is that while I think Chicago is probably the best place to get a good read politically, it’s not necessarily the best place to get a great read on Barack Obama because he’s a native son of this city or an adopted son of the city.   He’s a very, very popular figure here.

But what I do notice is what gets covered on the local news as compared to what gets covered on the national news or on cable TV, you know, when the — at one of the pivotal moments in the Egyptian situation, which was obviously of major import, you know, the local news the first ten minutes was the impending storm coming into Chicago and it just reminded me that people are out here living their lives.  They’re not paying attention to every detail of government, all of the political machinations.

And, you know, they’re concerned about the economy and they’re concerned about things that impact on their lives.  And I do think they have a basic sense that he’s trying hard under difficult circumstances to move this economy forward.

KING:  At the state level, when you look at Wisconsin and Ohio and New Jersey, three states that were on your map in 2008, three states that now have Republican governors, when you look at them, do you see a changing map and changing rules in the sense that you have these guys who are very aggressively going after the public employees’ unions and they think, politically, not only can they survive it, but that that’s what people want.

AXELROD:  And, you know, I think that that’s — they’re making a mistake and that — because I think everybody understands that states have big financial problems as do — as does government at every level and that they need to deal with it.  And so, in Wisconsin, for example, the public employee unions have already signified that they’re ready to make sacrifices in terms of their health care and their pension contributions and so on.

But what seems to be happening, certainly up there, is that you have a governor who has an ideological bent, perhaps political as well, to use the budget crisis to try and destroy the unions in the state.  And I don’t think that’s what people signed up for.  Everybody recognizes that there had to be concessions.  And yes, there have been excesses in places that have to be rolled back.  That is fair game.  That is a discussion that has to be had here in Illinois and Wisconsin, everywhere.

But when it then becomes a Trojan horse that is rolled in, in which is an anti-union maneuver, I think people are uncomfortable with that.  And I think there’s a danger that these governors playing to their base will overplay — will overplay their hand here.  I believe that’s what’s happening in Wisconsin.

KING:  There has been, from Organizing for America, the president’s grassroots organization, a very active role, and some say that there’s evidence that David Axelrod and the other people who helped the president politically think that this is a issue today that will be about 2012.  And let’s get in with our friends in the labor movement and help them fight back here.  How important is that?

AXELROD:  Let me just — I think we all need a little refresher in sort of contemporary politics and Organizing for America is a reflection of it.  The 13 million people who were active in the president’s campaign were not part of a command and control kind of operation.  Yes, we asked them to do some things and they did them.

KING:  And you’re asking them for some help now though.

AXELROD:  There is a tremendous impetus among our supporters in the state to stand up to what they think is excellence.  That’s not being — that is not command and control operation.  That is a grassroots reaction to what’s going on.

KING:  But if there’s an e-mail from the National Director of Organizing for America, it would be naive of somebody like me, who’s been around this track a few times, to think that somebody close to the president doesn’t know that’s happening.

AXELROD:  Well, all I can tell you is I think that there is — there is indigenous grassroots reaction to it, and a lot of that is among people who are also supportive of us.  And yes, the president has spoken to this.  You know, he believes, as I said, that it is legitimate to deal with the financial problems facing the states.  It is not legitimate to use them as a ram rod to try and destroy the unions.  And that becomes a very consequential question.

KING:  We’re talking about Wisconsin, what’s happening in the states.  Do you, sitting here, processing from Chicago, not the west wing, do you think there’ll be a government shutdown?

AXELROD:  It’s — I don’t know the answer to that.  I can tell you this, where I’m sitting today, I think the awareness of it here is probably very low.

KING:  The old rules, our history has a lot of Democrats saying, let them go for it.  The president would win here.  The president has the power of the bully pulpit, he’s a singular voice.  At a time you’d have all these different Republicans saying different things.  But there are others who say after 2010 and the big Republican win, do the rules apply?  Do we know the answer to that?

AXELROD:  The biggest mistake you can make in politics is kind of sit on the back of the truck and look backwards and say, well, this is how it happened before, so this is how it’s going to happen again.

You know, there’s great consternation about Washington generally.  And when things don’t go well, everyone tends to get splattered by it. I do think that, you know, the impetus for this is coming from the Republican party.

The president, you know, seems willing to me to be — to do some difficult things and to be very sensible about this.  But, you know, I’m not sure who’s in control of that Republican caucus or how they’re making decisions.  But there seems to be an inexorable pull there that is leading towards a confrontation.  And as I said, I think most people are not yet attuned to that.

KING:  David Axelrod, there on the politics of today.  Tomorrow, more of our conversation, including his thoughts on 2012, including how much it will cost and will Sarah Palin run?

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