President Barack Obama's top political advisor, David Axelrod, said today that if the White House had been asked earlier, more could have been done for embattled Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley in Massachusetts.
Axelrod, in a question and answer session with reporters, said it was too soon for "post-mortems" on the special election to fill the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat. And for the record, he said that he still expected Coakley to win.
But it didn't take much reading between the lines to see that the president and his team are preparing to back-pedal as swiftly as humanly possible to distance Obama from a disastrous result tonight.
The Obama strategist volunteered praise for the Massachusetts Senate campaign run by the Republican, Scott Brown, and seemed to find nothing good to point to in the Democratic effort. He said he didn't want to "delve deeply into post-mortems on the day people are voting."
Axelrod appeared to reject the criticism that he and his team had been taken by surprise and should have done more to head off a Democratic collapse. He said it was "not exactly a revelation to us" that voters are angry and anxious after a year in which millions of Americans have lost their jobs and millions more see no evidence in their lives that the economy is recovering.
Axelrod also said that there were "local issues at play" in Massachusetts and that the Republican had run "a very clever campaign."
"As a practitioner in politics, my hat's off to him," Axelrod said.
He was asked whether Obama should have done more than make an eleventh-hour effort to head off a defeat that would be calamatous for his agenda.
"The White House did everything we were asked to do," he said. "I think if we had been asked earlier, we would have responded earlier."
Axelrod sought to cast the events of the day in the context of the president's first year in office, which ends at noon Wednesday.
A Democratic defeat in Massachusetts would imperil, if not outright destroy, the health care overhaul that has consumed Obama and Congress for most of the past year.
It would also become a pivot point for Obama's presidency, a calamity at the ballot box that would force him to shift his approach to governing. His rhetoric and efforts to forge bipartisanship, baldly rejected by Republicans, would have to be redoubled, at the very least. Unless Republicans reach out in response--which seems unlikely--the country faces a year of stalemate in Washington leading up to the November elections.
Meantime, liberal Democrats, who invested hope and enthusiasm in Obama, would have to dramatically recalibrate their expectations and deal with the fact that any realistic chance of advancing their issues in the foreseeable future have been dealt a decisive blow. Axelrod denied a published report in Politico that Obama would respond combatively to a Republican victory.
"It didn't refelect any thinking that I know of," he said.
But the White House strategist outlined an election-year blueprint for Obama which suggested that Massachusetts is the beginning of a new, more populist-themed approach to governing, as many analysts have said.
The president plans to hit the road domestically more often than he did in 2009, when much of his attention was focused abroad.
A visit to Ohio this week marks the start of a more frequent travel schedule, including extended road trips, presumably to key states in the midterm voting.
"We're going to be doing a lot of this," Axelrod said of this week's Midwest trip. "This is just the first."
Axelrod said he wasn't "Pollyanna-ish" about the political situation-- a "tough environment for incumbents generally" and for the Democratic Party.
Ultimately, he said, voters will have to "make a judgment" about which party and its candidates offer "the best possibility for progress for them and their families" and "is fighting for the middle class." And which party is beholden to "powerful interests" and protecting "the status quo."