David Axelrod: Auto-Bailout, Torture Memos Among Obama's Toughest Decisions

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As he prepared to depart with President Obama on last week's trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Europe, David Axelrod took a break from his briefing books and meetings to discuss the administration's overall agenda and what he has learned about Obama since his old friend took office in January. "Ax," as he is known around the West Wing, was Obama's chief campaign strategist. Now Axelrod is a senior adviser at the White House and a member of the president's inner circle. As he sipped a Diet Coke, the low-key and cerebral Axelrod gave U.S. News a tour d'horizon of the Obama presidency. Excerpts:

How do you see President Obama's agenda playing out for the rest of this year?

We obviously have an aggressive agenda that is commensurate with the nature of the times and the challenges that we face. Our hope is to get significant health reform, significant energy legislation, financial regulatory reform all done by the end of the year. We obviously have a budget, as well, we need to get done, and there will be other priorities that are important but not quite as transcendent. But those certainly will be very significant. And obviously, getting Judge Sotomayor confirmed [as a Supreme Court justice] is a big priority for us. Regarding Judge Sonia Sotomayor, it seems that the most strident criticism of her is coming from conservative interest groups and people outside Capitol Hill, not so much from members of the Senate. Is this heartening to you?

There's no doubt that she has a great life story and it's a great American story, a bootstrap story. In between the range of experience she's had as a big-city prosecutor, an international commercial litigator, a trial court judge, and an appeals court judge, I don't think anybody in our lifetime has brought this array of credentials. And then you add on to that the fact that she is such a highly regarded judge. Her opinions are cited more often by her fellow judges than anyone else on the appellate bench. You put all that together, I think that it is hard to argue that she is not well equipped to be a great Supreme Court justice, and I think they are yielding to that reality. And I think it's very, very heartening for the country that Republicans in the Senate have been so outspoken in their criticism of some of the more polarizing and divisive language that some of the folks outside have used. They don't want those comments to define their party, and none of us wants them to define our politics or our government. So I'm happy with the way things have gone in this first week. What is the president's role in pushing for the nomination from now on?

It's sort of out of his hands. He may comment on it from time to time, but by and large this is now a matter for the Senate. She is going to make her visits and they'll get the measure of her. And then hopefully sooner rather than later we'll have hearings and she'll handle their questions, and I think based on my exposure to her and my reading she'll do it very well. How did the president react after meeting with her?

He said that he was really impressed with her knowledge and mastery of the law and the Constitution. He approached it as the former constitutional law professor. I'm not burdened by that kind of knowledge. I'm just starting to get a feel for her as a person. What came across from my conversations with her is someone who is very direct, very honest, and very committed to the law. I think it's fair to say that he was enthusiastic about her a week ago and he's more enthusiastic about her now. Judge Sotomayor once said her life as a Latina might help her make better decisions than a white male. How is that playing out as a factor in her nomination?

As often happens, I think there's a different discussion going on in the country than there is here in Washington. I think that people really do want judges who have broad and excellent judicial and legal experience but also people who have a foot in the real world and understand what the real-life implications are of their rulings. Because while, as the president has said many times, most of these cases are clear calls, some of them are not, and on those you want people to bring the whole range of their experiences to the table and trying to reason them through.