Axelrod’s chief regret of first two years: Poor “messaging,” of course

You’re the message man. One of the criticisms of President Obama’s first two years in office is that the message was weak. What do you say to that?

I say a couple of things. One is, we came to office in a time of national emergency and economic crisis and two wars, one of which had no strategy. We didn’t have the luxury of orchestrating the messaging as we would under normal circumstances. We had to come here and, even before we arrived, do some very tough things—not very popular things—to arrest the free fall of the economy. But I also recognize the nature of the economy, the nature of Congress, and the nature of the midterm elections. We were going to have some level of dislocation come November. I’m gratified that the president’s numbers have been as resilient as they’ve been. So from a political standpoint, he’s emerged from a very difficult two years with a solid foundation on which to build…

Can you identify any [other] mistakes over the past two years?

There are things I would have liked to have messaged differently. I would have liked to have taken the tax-cut portion of [the Recovery Act] and spent a long time talking about that. I would have liked to take the energy portion and talked a lot about that. I think we could have done more with the magnificent education reforms that Arne Duncan has championed, the Race to the Top, which has encouraged 34 states to raise their standards. I’m really, really proud of what this president has done during a very difficult time for this country. And he’s made some very hard decisions. One of [the pivotal decisions] was on the auto industry. I said to the president, “Before you make a decision, you need to know this isn’t going to be very popular.” And like on so many things, he said to me, “Yeah, but on the other hand I’m not going to allow the American auto industry to disappear in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression.