My column: Axelrod on the choice, not the referendum, with Nevada as microcosm


About halfway through my half-hour chat with David Axelrod on Tuesday, President Obama’s top political adviser said matter-of-factly what has become all too clear, especially to Mitt Romney: “It’s a choice; it’s not a referendum.”

Amid all the stuff I expected – Obama is for the middle class, Romney is for tax cuts –that obvious statement seemed so unexpected. Yet, so simple, so true.

Nowhere is the success of the Obama campaign five weeks out so obvious and yet so startling as it is in Nevada, the place where the sun always shines but where dark economic clouds have hovered since 2008. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the country, the shakiest housing market in the country, the longest odds for recovery in the country. And….Obama is ahead.

Yes, in every public poll taken this year, the president is leading Romney by a few points – and in some private surveys close to double digits. How does this happen, especially because, as I began the interview with Axelrod, so many Nevadans had a job and a home when Obama took office and so many now have neither or are barely hanging on to one or the other.

“I think what I would say is that there’s no doubt that Nevada took a terrible, terrible hit from the collapse of the housing market and the recession,” Axelrod said from Camp Westin at Lake Las Vegas, where the president is preparing for Wednesday night’s debate with Romney in Denver. “The state’s doing a little bit better now. The housing market is doing a little bit better now, foreclosures are down 70 percent over last year. But where do we go from here?”

He then, of course, answered his own question with the familiar talking points that could be extracted from any stump speech or Obama surrogate appearance on cable television. Fine.

But the fact is that foreclosure drop is artificial, brought on by a state legislative measure that created a bottleneck by stopping banks from foreclosing – but, many fear, only temporarily. It is not because of any Obama Administration initiative that the housing market is getting better or foreclosures are down. And many, many Nevadans have not felt any appreciable betterment of their lot in the last three years.

And still, Obama leads here.

Part of this is explained by Romney’s failure to present any alternative that has resonated with suffering Nevadans and instead to essentially pat them on the head and say let the market hit bottom. This is emblematic of Romney’s awkwardness as a candidate. And despite the political opportunity handed to him by the devastated economy and because of the relentless criticisms of the Obama campaign, Romney finds fingers wagging at him that were formerly pointing at the president. 

I asked Axelrod about the apparent ignorance by the administration early on, now exposed in Bob Woodward’s book, of the severity of the national housing crisis and how the economic stimulus plan essentially ignored it. Woodward reported that when the housing crisis came up during the early 2009 discussions, with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin wondering about underwater homeowners, Obama said, ‘We will not roll out an aggressive housing plan,” As Woodward explained, “The housing problem was massive and baffling, and none of them had solid ideas for fixing it.”

And still, Obama leads here.

Axelrod, who was inside the White House at the time, did not deny Woodward’s account, but said during the first two years, “We were an economic triage unit. I don’t think any president has talked more to his economic advisers. A series of steps were taken and there are hundreds of thousands or more who have had their loans modified and tens of thousands of foreclosures have been avoided.” And then, knowing the Romney statement to the “newspaper’s” editorial board by heart, Axelrod said, “It was a better remedy than to let the housing market bottom out.”

I asked Axelrod what the president’s closing argument for the campaign is, what he will present tonight in Denver and through the final five weeks.

“We’ve made some progress since the day he came in the door,” Axelrod told me. “We’ve begun turning that around. We have more work to do.”

And then, again, he pivoted to the alternative – “top-down, trickle-down view, tried that experiment and it failed….”

And still, Obama leads here.

I wondered if looking back, especially on the stimulus, if the president would acknowledge having made any mistakes. Axelrod said anyone would look back on his or her life and acknowledge that some individual decisions made were faulty. But not the stimulus, he said, “The example that you raise. Half the people have the critique that it was too large and half say it was too small. That’s the nature of it.”

Axelrod insisted that “every economist agrees that (the stimulus) put the floor under the collapse” and it was legislation “to invest in communities.” But, as we have seen from Democrats I have interviewed this cycle, who have stammered and deflected rather than say they would have voted for the measure, no one seems to want to embrace the stimulus. If the Democrats won’t love it, why should voters?

And still, Obama leads here.

And why? Of course there are the simple mechanics – the Democratic machine and surging voter registration, including a potent Hispanic bloc for the president. But I could almost sense Axelrod smiling on the other end of the line because the answer is so simple, despite the nation's worst economy.

It’s a choice, not a referendum.