Aspen Ideas Festival

Obama Reps Woo Liberal Elite at Aspen Ideas Festival But Face Angry, Disappointed Supporters

White House effort to argue the president’s case to moderates in Aspen has been meeting angry resistance.

Leigh Vogel / Getty Images

If David Axelrod thought he was going to be love-bombed at the Aspen Ideas Festival—the week-long conclave of well-heeled do-gooders and big thinkers who, stylistically at least, would be expected to wish President Obama the very best—he had another think coming.

“This is a moderate crowd, both Republicans and Dems—you’re not looking at Tea Party Nation,” Time magazine columnist Joe Klein told Obama’s political guru on Tuesday evening during an onstage interview in the fashionable Colorado resort town. “And there’s a sense of disappointment here. They know he’s smart and trying hard. They wonder why he hasn’t been more forceful—why he hasn’t cut through.”

Klein, who was grilling his old friend Axelrod under the auspices of the festival’s organizers, the Aspen Institute think tank and the Atlantic Monthly magazine, was just being polite. In fact, some folks at the festival, who voted for Obama in the last election, aren’t just disappointed, they’re angry at him this time around, with the economy struggling, unemployment topping 9 percent and the president’s job approval ratings sliding week after week.

“I’m so mad, I want to kick his butt,” said nominal supporter Cynthia Brill, who was attending the panel discussions and earnest disquisitions with her husband Steve, the journalist and high-tech entrepreneur. “They think everything is just fine—they don’t seem to know what’s going on.”

Outside of Axelrod’s hearing, Brill, a lawyer, told me that even before the outcome of the debt-limit negotiations is known, Obama has given up far too much in his back and forth with congressional Republicans over increasing the U.S. government’s ability to borrow money and prevent a market-shaking credit default. “He’s already lost the battle,” she claimed.

Brill added that Obama’s refusal to risk political capital in order to raise the 15 percent income tax rate on a privileged group of wealthy hedge-fund managers—a step that could produce an extra $20 billion in revenue—is another indication of his lack of spine. “I’m really pissed off,” she said.

At last year’s Ideas Festival, criticism of Obama’s policies was loud and persistent, and only two administration officials, Attorney General Eric Holder and Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes, showed up to mix and mingle. This year, the administration is sending five top officials, including Axelrod, Barnes, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to argue Obama’s case (Budget Director Jacob Lew had to drop out at the last minute), but the charm offensive has been meeting resistance.

At an earlier panel discussion Tuesday involving various political practioners, Axelrod—who left the White House a few months ago to spearhead the president’s reelection campaign—was put in the surprising position of trying to defend his boss from Jane Harman, a veteran Democratic member of the House who resigned her California seat in February to run the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (and, after the recent death of her husband Sidney, joined the board of the Newsweek Daily Beast Co.).

“I think it was an important thing to do,” Harman said about Obama’s push for health care reform legislation, “but it had huge costs as it spun out. Because, first of all, it sopped up all the brain cells for a year while other problems festered. I don’t know that we would be farther along with the jobs problem, but it is the huge problem and it’s going to the motivator for a lot of voters in 2012. And because the product was partisan, its acceptance has been very tough So you can check the box—we got health care—but what didn’t we get?”

Facing friendly fire, Axelrod tried to deflect it. “Jane, I just wouldn’t refer to the health care initiative as ‘checking a box.’ It was dealing with a fundamental problem that really threatens us, it’s the biggest single driver of our debt.”

“You are right about that, and it does mean a lot,” Harman countered diplomatically, “but I’m just saying I think that the stubbornness in clinging to that only, and perhaps not trying to do the rest on a bipartisan basis” was an ill-advised path.

A little later, a businessman in the audience accused Obama of “consistently attacking business and industry—he’s vilified them.”

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Axelrod retorted that contrary to the businessman’s “talking points,” Obama has supported 17 different tax cuts for businesses along with funneling federal dollars to shore up shaky financial institutions and the automobile industry. Lobbyist Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, told the president’s man: “The question is not entirely about policy, it’s about the rhetoric of the president and, more broadly, the Democratic Party… Bashing business.”

“Nobody is bashing business,” Axelrod insisted, to boos from the audience.

Republican consultant and Daily Beast contributor Mark McKinnon noted that Obama’s difficult political circumstance reminds him of the situation President George W. Bush confronted in the year leading up to his reelection campaign, with a difficult economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and presidential job approval of under 50 percent. “I feel some of David’s pain,” McKinnon said, flourishing a festival agenda and handing it to Axelrod, “so here’s the playbook, David.”

Axelrod smiled weakly as he took McKinnon’s unwelcome gift and let it slip to the floor.

A couple of hours later during his onstage interview, Axelrod heatedly disputed Klein’s contention that Obama has been a passive leader and a poor salesman for his successes. Klein said Obama “is the first president I’ve ever encountered that has given the voters three tax cuts and never told them about it. What’s up with that?”

Axelrod argued that his boss’s leadership efforts are focused on results, not style, and that history will judge Obama’s accomplishments kindly. As for the next election, Axelrod said the president’s Republican opponent will be the winner of a primary battle between “the Tea Party” and “the Martini Party” wings of the GOP. “I’m not saying that Mitt Romney”—a Mormon teetotaler—“had a martini,” he quipped.

Meanwhile, in an illustration of Obama’s grace under pressure, Axelrod told of having lunch with him on April 30 to go over his jokes for that night’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

“I usually help out on the joke writing,” Axelrod said. “We spent a long time talking about the Alabama storms, and then Cape Canaveral where he saw Gabby Giffords… Then a briefer from the NSC [National Security Council] came in and the president asked me to leave. I didn’t think anything of it.” Axelrod returned to lunch “and we came to a joke about Tim Pawlenty… The conceit of the joke was ‘Poor Tim Pawlenty. He could be a great candidate but for that unfortunate middle name, ‘bin Laden.’ And the president said, ‘That seems so hackneyed, so yesterday. We ought to take that out.’ We were bewildered by that. What could we put in there instead? And one of the speechwriters said ‘Hosni.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Hosni? That’s not so funny.’”

The next night, Axelrod went to bed early. It wasn’t too long before his wife woke him up. “Get up, I think we got bin Laden,” she said. “At that moment I realized why they had to change the joke,” Axelrod recalled. “I talked to him afterward and he knew very well what all the stakes were… He makes decisions, he lives with those decisions and he doesn’t look back.”