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David Axelrod Talks With John Heilemann: A Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United?

The crowd at the 92nd Street Y tonight was friendly territory for native New Yorker (and Mets fan) David Axelrod, President Obama's chief political strategist — at least going by the hands-up poll conducted by John Heilemann, New York's national correspondent and the evening's host. "We have a roomful of Obama supporters and four trackers for the Romney campaign," remarked Axelrod, who was jokingly introduced by Heilemann as an "exotic rodent" — he is one of mankind's last remaining mustachioed men, after all. If there were any Romney moles in the audience, their ears surely perked up when Axelrod got onto the subject of campaign finance:

What the Supreme Court did with Citizens United, opening the door to this unlimited spending — and because of a loophole three-quarters undisclosed — is take us back to the Gilded Age, back to the robber barons trying to take over the government. When we win, we will use whatever tools out there, including a constitutional amendment, to turn this back. I understand the free speech argument, but when the Koch brothers can spend $400 million, more than the McCain campaign and the Republican Party spent last time, that's very concerning.

Obama's campaign manager said earlier this year that the president would consider a constitutional amendment, but it's been unclear how forcefully he might push the strategy.

Axelrod's claim that democracy (and not just Obama's candidacy) is threatened by this flood of undisclosed cash may seem a tad disingenuous considering Obama's embrace of Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA. So he offered up a little scenario. The Obama campaign would need to tap 180,000 small donors — who average about $50 dollars — just to equal the $10 million donation Karl Rove's outfit pulled in from a single anonymous donor last year.

Beyond campaign finance, Heilemann and Axelrod sparred jovially about a number of other 2012 flash points, indulged in a little 2008 nostalgia, and swapped the odd Obama pre-presidency anecdote.

On Gay Marriage's Political Non-Impact

Just weeks after President Obama famously completed his slow evolution on same-sex marriage, David Axelrod said it was "a wash," based on the public polling he has seen. In the dozen or so swing states where the Obama and Romney campaigns are already fully engaged, he predicted it may be "marginally helpful" here and "marginally harmful" there.

On Obamacare, the Tear-Jerker Edition

The day the Affordable Care Act passed Congress, David Axelrod was in the Roosevelt Room when he felt compelled to shut himself in his adjoining office and weep. He was remembering back when his daughter, just 7 months old at the time, began having seizures. (Axelrod and his wife later helped found CURE, an epilepsy charity.) Her medication wasn't covered by their insurance; other insurance plans wouldn't cover it either, citing the epilepsy as a preexisting condition. He remembered paying almost $10,000 out of pocket, at a time when he was barely earning $40,000 a year. "We almost went bankrupt." Back in the Roosevelt Room, Axelrod grabbed the president and, still with tears in his eyes, said, "I just want to thank you on behalf of my family." Obama put his hand on his friend's shoulder and replied, "This is why we do the work."

It's a feel-good moment meant to elicit oohs and ahs and applause, which it did, but it was also Axelrod's way of fully claiming ownership of Obamacare when, as Heilemann pointed out, the reelection campaign seems to be sidestepping the issue. But Team Obama is well aware of the law's unpopularity. "In terms of [Obama's] decision to do it, no one said to him this will be a political winner for you. I promise you, he understood the politics of it were very difficult." And as for whether or not the Supreme Court will knock Obamacare down, Axelrod threw up his hands. "I don't know anybody who can do the political calculus for you, but one thing I know for sure, if they do decide to reverse the law in a substantial way, millions and millions of Americans will lose a great deal." 

On Mitt Romney and Bain Capital

"Those people up in Boston," as Heilemann coyly put it, are betting their campaign on one "very simple phrase they use ever day: the Obama economy." But even with last month's dismal jobs numbers and the sluggish recovery, Axelrod isn't fazed. "The American people are smarter … and won't excuse Romney and just give him the nod because he's not [Obama.]" 

Heilemann also pressed Axelrod on the campaign's slew of attacks on Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital, the private equity firm. He didn't fully take the bait, but he did lay out the narrow distinction the Obama campaign is now sticking with. It isn't that private equity is bad per se — take Bill Clinton's word for it. In fact, "nobody questions [Romney] was a successful businessman," Axelrod said. "What I challenge is that he was a successful job creator." He mentions the GS Industries steel mill in Kansas City where 750 workers lost their jobs after Bain Capital came in. Going back to Romney's time as governor of Massachusetts, he said the public sector grew six times faster than the private sector (not entirely correct, per Politifact) while the state ranked almost dead last in job creation. Romney defenders' rejoinder, which Axelrod finds understandably funny, is that the first year of Romney's governorship should be discounted because he inherited a tough economy.

On Bill Clinton's Off-Message Moments

"I don't think one president could ever have been more generous to another," Axelrod said. "He's a great asset to us." And as for Republicans' jibes that Obama should take a lesson from Clinton, Axelrod shot back: "I wish Republicans would listen to Bill Clinton, a president who raised taxes on the wealthy, spurred on economic growth, and left a $2 trillion surplus. They spent eight years squandering it."

On Obama's Bipartisan Naïveté

When it came to audience questions, most were a variation on: Why did the president take so long to react to the Republican's pig-headed stubbornness? "If you want to paint the picture of a guy who is naïve, waiting for John Boehner to come over with a fruitcake," Axelrod responded, "there's a little history we have to go over." Despite the political gridlock of the past two years, people seem to have already forgotten what Obama accomplished in his first two years.

"Though he tried to forge working relationships across party lines, he also passed with almost no Republican support the recovery act, the healthcare bill, financial reform despite a brutal lobbying campaign, the Lilly Ledbetter act, put two women on the Supreme Court. He had arguably one of the most productive first two years since Lyndon Johnson."

On Meeting Obama for the First Time

John Heilemann remembered his graduate school days at Harvard when one day, while "smoking feverishly," a friend walked up to him and introduced him to "this tall, thin, striking law student Barack Obama. He looked at me and asked, 'Hey, can I bum one of those smokes?' I looked at him and said, 'You are going to be the first black President of the United States.'"

"Mine is close to that," said Axelrod, "but actually true. I got a call in 1992 from a friend of mine, Betty Lou Saltzman, a doyenne of liberal politics in Chicago who said, 'I just met the most remarkable young man. I know this sounds odd but I think he's going to be President of the United States some day. At the time he was running a voter registration drive in Chicago. Needless to say, whenever I go to the track now, I bring Betty Lou with me."

This post has been edited since it was initially published.

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