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Brian Williams interviews Axelrod

NBC's Brian Williams interviewed White House adviser David Axelrod today ahead of the president's speech tonight.

He indicates that Obama will be more specific in his joint address to Congress tonight than he has been previously on health care. Tonight, Obama, he said, will not draw a line in the sand on the public option. He also indicated the president is willing to go it alone -- without Republicans -- if necessary, since many are simply playing politics. Obama, he said, has "had more consultation across party lines, I would hazard a guess than any president-- in recent-- history."

Axelrod also blamed the news media, in part, for the White House behind on the message on health care.

Here's the transcript:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Part of why your administration is in this position tonight, you've been rolled by the opposition on a couple of points. Town hall meetings have exploded across the country. There's this notion that was in the public that there would be death panels. Who is responsible for that?

DAVID AXELROD: Well Brian, first of all, let me challenge-- your research, and I'll tell you what position we're in tonight. We're in a position to complete a historic-- health reform. And I think we're closer than we've been in our lifetime-- to doing that. We allowed the Congress to work-- a lot of ideas were on the table, and there's been some mischief-- out there.

Most of the change, almost all the change in polling did not occur in the month of August, even as-- some of the m-- louder voices got quite a bit of time on your air-- and others. Tonight, the President can bring the strands of-- ideas together, Republican and Democrat, and present a plan that will bring security and stability to people who have insurance, and help those who don't, get the insurance-- that they can afford. And I think that's-- will be an extraordinary achievement for-- the American people.

WILLIAMS: So, you don't think this is a surprise that you're in the position of going back at it again to redefine and reclarify to Congress and the American people what the President first-- tried to describe months ago?

AXELROD: We're not going back at it again, Brian. We made a strategic decision to lay out some broad principles at the beginning of the process, challenge the-- the Congress to work. Four the five congressional committees have gotten that work done. The fifth said today they're going to-- complete theirs-- next week. And now it's time for the President to say, "Okay, we've heard all the ideas, we've heard the debate. Now let's move forward, here's the way I think-- we should finish this work in order to bring the kinda health insurance reform this country badly needs."

WILLIAMS: If you didn't lose control of the debate and the talking points, how did something like death panels take on such currency and occupy the media coverage for as long as it did?

AXELROD: Well Brian-- first of all, I can't speak to the media coverage, you would be in a better position-- to speak to that than I. I think most experts-- all-- debunk that. But look, you're-- a student of history-- this has never been easy, and we never expected it-- it would be. The health insurance reform is something that has eluded many presidents, many administrations. It's been talked about-- for almost a century. And-- and we're closer than we've ever been before. So I'm not worried about-- the zigs and zags-- in the road. I'm worried about the direction, and-- and I think we're on the precipice-- of completing that work, and it's gonna make an enormously positive difference for Americans who have insurance and want more security and stability, and for Americans who don't and want insurance they can afford.

WILLIAMS: The President himself this morning admitted that he had been-- less than-- my words, not his, less than articulate-- in-- in making his plainly. Are you admitting to the same?

AXELROD: I think that-- when you open the process as we had to lots of ideas, to the work of Congress-- there's gonna be-- there are gonna be a lot of-- a lot of offshoots of that. And-- this is a chance to pull all those together and bring clarity at a time we always planned we would. I wanna emphasize the fact that this is the process. The committees do their work, and now the Congress is taking this up in earnest. We've had an eight-month-- debate, this is a serious, complex topic. It warranted that kind of debate. Now it's time to finish the job and the President is speaking to the Congress at the appropriate time as they enter the final days and weeks of this debate.

WILLIAMS: During our post-speech coverage tonight, are we going to be saying that the President came out foursquare behind a public option, or left the door open to take it off the table?

AXELROD: Well, I think the President's gonna speak-- directly to the public option. One of the issues on the public option is-- very few people understand what it is that we're talking about. We're talking about public insurance option not subsidized by taxpayers, but paid for by premiums. Within this health insurance exchange, poor people who don't have insurance, or small businesses, people who can't afford it, in order to create competition and choice with private insurers.

There are many markets in this country where one insurer has 90 percent-- of the market. So this will help bring the cost down. Those folks now are paying three times what someone who has employer-- coverage, employer provided coverage has. So that-- people need to understand what it is. But he is not going to draw-- lines in the sand and say, "This is the whole of health reform." If we can bring security and stability-- to people who have it, coverage to people who don't, reduce the cost, that is what we're after. This is a means to an end, and we should not let it be the entire debate.

WILLIAMS: So if I understand you correctly, he won't hinge it upon a public option?

AXELROD: He will-- he will-- talk about the public option, he will acknowledge that there are other ideas. And he will talk about the goal of it, which is to bring competition and choice to the insurance market for the benefit of consumers.

WILLIAMS: Is the President going to say he is willing to go it alone, or the opposite, is unwilling to do this if it's not a compromise?

AXELROD: Well, let me say, we want-- to bring with us anyone who wants to come. One of the things about this debate that's been interesting as it's unfolded is that even those who started off as ardent opponents are now forced, perhaps grudgingly, to acknowledge this is a major problem for this country. Every poll I've seen suggests people believe this is a problem.

They want-- action. And we want people to come with us. But, we should not let the process become a barrier to progress. We have to get this done. And the President is going to do what's necessary to make sure we achieve health insurance reform this year.

WILLIAMS: Can you name one vote in the Senate that you're confident of getting that doesn't have a D next to the name?

AXELROD: Well-- we're talking to people in both parties. And if I-- if-- if I were to name those names tonight, it would make it more difficult for them-- tomorrow. So I'm not gonna-- I'm not gonna do that, Brian. But I'm not willing to say that there's not gonna be-- Republican support-- at the end of the day for health insurance reform.

WILLIAMS: Perception and message versus expectations. And most agree that coming off the campaign that all of you executed, expectations were wildly out of control. But it-- it's also clear that a good number of Americans have reason now to see the President as kind of a sharp-elbowed partisan, we'll do it, we-- Democratic votes if we have to kind of, old school, polarizing politician, when he campaigned on the opposite message. Can that be changed? Is it your desire to reset the gyro and change it back?

AXELROD: Well first of all, I don't think that's how most Americans-- see the President, Brian. The fact is that this is partisanship, rigid ideologies have been endemic to Washington for a long time. You're not gonna change that-- over night. And if people make a political strategic judgment that they don't wanna participate in the process, all you can do is open the door.

The plan he announces tonight will have Democratic ideas and Republican ideas. So-- he is not being-- rigid in-- in any way. But he is intent on getting something done-- for the American people who are as-- as-- who are suffering in-- a system that d-- that doesn't always work well for them.

WILLIAMS: But truly the fe-- back to the previous answer, isn't the fact that you can't name the public support of a single Republican in the U.S. Senate, proof of a polarized atmosphere surrounding this issue?

AXELROD: Well, I think polarization is not just surrounding this issue, polarization is something that's affected Washington in the-- in the long term. It's something that's gonna take some time-- to cope with. All we can do is open the door and invite others in. He's had more consultation across party lines, I would hazard a guess than any president-- in recent-- history.

And-- I think that's-- recognized by-- by the public. But ultimately, we're gonna be judged-- by what we accomplish. And-- he is intent-- on accomplishing health insurance reform that gives security and stability to people who have insurance, and helps those who don't have it get insurance. And-- that's how we're gonna be judged.

WILLIAMS: Will the President mention the role of the media in all this tonight?

AXELROD: I think the President addressed the media quite a bit today-- at the event that you probably-- attended. I think he'll touch on it. But that's not-- you know, this is not about flagellating the media. We all understand what modern-- reporting and coverage is like in the realities of today's politics. But that's-- that's-- less important than the substance of how we're gonna do th-- something to-- to give people-- hard working, middle-class people in this country-- a sense of security and stability.

WILLIAMS: I did read-- on the Web a news item today saying GOP leaders have not been invited to the White House on the subject of health care reform since April. Is that true or false?

AXELROD: I don't know, I haven't looked at the calendar. I know there've been a lotta Republicans in and outta here. I think Senator Grassley, for example, has been here-- several times. I don't know-- within the time (UNINTEL) I suspect it was-- much later-- than April. So we-- we've had, Brian, lots of conversations with people on both sides of the aisle, both at the principles level and at the staff level.

And that's really a red herring. If people are not-- if people are not-- coming along now, it's not because they weren't invited to participate in the discussion, or their ideas weren't solicited. As I said, we've embraced a lot of Republican ideas. But there may be strategic judgments being made on the other side. You heard Senator Demint say, "If we just beat Obama on this, you know, we can put him back on his heels and score-- a political victory." But that would be a same, because that would be a defeat for the American people. And we're intent on not letting that happen.

WILLIAMS: So will the President have an open hand or a clenched fist tonight?

AXELROD: Well-- the President's hand is always-- open, I-- I think he'll-- he'll reject-- the kinds of-- diversionary tactics, distortions-- that have-- arisen along the way here. But as I said, his attitude is always to work with anyone who wants to work with him, in an earnest way to solve what is a big problem for the American people. And that's his responsibility, and he's gonna meet it.

WILLIAMS: Were you surprised at-- what happened to the President's attempt to talk to school children? I know he addressed it very briefly this morning, but it was another-- occasion—


WILLIAMS: --where your intentions-- got turned around, and the public debate took off in precisely the other direction.

AXELROD: Well Brian, look. We-- we didn't get 100 percent of the vote. There are elements out there who oppose the President. And there-- and-- and they may continue to oppose the President. But I think most Americans believe that it is a positive thing when the President of the United States urges young people to stay in school, pursue their studies, make the most-- of their lives.

And if we changed one child's life by doing that, if the President encouraged one kid to stay in school and finish, then it's worth all-- all the aggravation. I'm not worried about-- all of that sound and fury. What-- he has a job to do. And I think part of that job is to be a good role model, a good influence-- to give people the benefit of his own experience, and to encourage them to follow their own individual responsibility and meet their own individual responsibilities. I think he had a great effect-- in that regard yesterday.

WILLIAMS: At an interesting and some would say crucial time and still a new administration, David Axelrod, thank you very much for taking our questions today.