Axelrod On H1N1 Vaccines: 'We Overpromised'

David Axelrod, President Obama's senior adviser, says the administration based its predictions about how many doses of the H1N1 vaccine would be available by mid-October on bad information. Host Scott Simon visited the White House on Friday to ask Axelrod about the criticisms of the government's handling of the H1N1 vaccine, how the administration counted the number of jobs the stimulus is responsible for, and the controversy over the DNC promising donors access to senior officials at the White House.

On H1N1

Scott Simon: On Friday, the president talked about his frustration that H1N1 vaccine hasn't gotten out to more Americans. In August, the Centers for Disease Control said that 120 million doses would be available. They later scaled that back to 45 million. We're speaking today, on the last day of October, 25 million doses reportedly are ready. Did the government overpromise?

David Axelrod: Well, I think the manufacturers overpromised, and what was reported was the representations that were made to us. The fact is that this is a problem that's abating every day. And yes, we thought we would have 40,000 now, we have 26 —

Simon: — Forty million

Axelrod: — I'm sorry, 40 million. Now we have 26 million. We believe that that is improving on a daily basis, and we're going to have an ample supply in very short order. So yes, we probably did overpromise, and we overpromised on the basis of what was represented to us.

Simon: Does it give you any sensation about — is it harder to get things accomplished from this place than maybe you thought it was during the campaign?

Axelrod: Well, I don't know that I had an expectation about how hard or easy it would be to get things done. The fact is that in terms of the H1N1 virus, we've mobilized pretty rapidly, and I think effectively starting the spring. I was in [with] the president after the first briefing, and there was a time, frankly, when people were suggesting that maybe we were overreacting. But he set the wheels in motion, and I think that that will have averted an even larger public health crisis. On the vaccine, by the way, Scott, I should mention that the other important element to this is Tamiflu to deal with the flu once it occurs. And there [are] ample supplies of those. So those who are affected ought to be able to get those treatments, and we're particularly interested in the children.

Simon: Of course, during the campaign, then-Sen. Obama was critical of the previous administration's handling of disasters and emergencies. Does the difficulty you've had in getting the vaccine out to millions of Americans make you think, "You know, it really is harder?"

Axelrod: Look, I don't think anybody ever held the last administration up to a standard of perfection. I mean there was a wholesale of problems relative to Katrina that were appalling. This problem was exactly what I described to you, which was related to the manufacturers' representation versus what they were able to produce. But I think in every other way, including our constant consultation with public health authorities around the country, from the time the first evidence of a potential epidemic arose, I'd be happy to match our performance with previous administrations on this. We've learned a lot from them.

In fact, I was in a meeting with people from previous administrations way back to the Ford administration on how they dealt with epidemics; that was one of the first things that we did. So, you can always do things better, and one thing we learned is don't accept the representation of manufacturers at face value. And we also need to develop methods of producing or developing vaccines even more quickly so as to bring them to market and to the public. But I feel like [Homeland Security] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano, [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius, the CDC — everyone has done a very good job.

On Stimulus Spending And Jobs

Simon: [An] Associated Press report says the number of jobs the administration initially said had been created or saved by the stimulus bill had been vastly inflated — they said in some cases even by 10 times. Is that true?

Axelrod: No. And they were extrapolating from a small piece of information, and the fact is that we — the portion of the package that has been evaluated — produced a million jobs, and that's only a mere portion of the recovery plan. We believe that we're going to hit our goal, which was to create several million jobs. But the bigger goal — and understand, the bigger goal of the recovery package was to stem the flow, to stem the momentum of this recession and to get the economy growing again. So this week, we saw that the growth numbers were in a positive direction for the first time since last year, early last year. And so we're moving in the right direction. We have to create more jobs in the private sector; the Recovery Act is helping with that. But we have to grow the economy to do that, and we're moving in the right direction.

On Democratic National Committee And Promised Access

Simon: Democratic National Committee documents made public this week show that people who gave more than $30,000 personally, I believe, or bundled at least $300,000 to Democratic candidates, were promised access to people who work in this building. No promises about policies, but the implications [were] they could talk to senior advisers, perhaps even yourself. There were other perks that got —

Axelrod: — I haven't had the —

Simon: — You haven't had the call?

Axelrod: I haven't had the pleasure, no.

Simon: You know, there were reports about other perks, including some donors using the White House bowling alley. Now I want to be an adult about this; this kind of thing has gone on at administrations in both parties for some time. But does it square with an administration that said they would change the way business is done?

Axelrod: You know, Scott, let me say a few things. First of all, there was one offering or one brochure or one communication from the Democratic National Committee in the beginning of the year, and they had a line in there about access to senior policymakers. No one was more furious about that, when he learned about that, than the president himself. And he learned about it from a press clipping. And he's made it very clear to everyone that that's unacceptable to him.

I would say that there's never been an administration that's been more assiduous than ours. For the first time ever, anyone who comes into the White House is now a matter of public record. You can see who comes into the White House; you can see who has visited. Part of this reporting is based on our own disclosures. No administration has been tougher on lobbying and ethics. We have strict rules against lobbyists participating in government; people who have been active in lobbying in recent years; strict rules about whether you can lobby the administration after you leave, after you leave government.

In many ways, we've revolutionized the ethics regimen here in this building, and they'll never be the same again. So I think, yes, you're right, you can't fully eliminate politics from the process. But I think in terms of reform, we've set a very high standard, and one that this town hasn't seen before.

Simon: But to circle back a bit: The president was furious when he read about this?

Axelrod: Yeah, this is not something he embraces. He doesn't want his advisers being offered as part of a fundraising appeal, and that was made clear. It was done once. It was done early in the year, it wasn't repeated. So someone else obviously thought it was inappropriate. But when he heard about it, which was just when it was reported, he was very unhappy.

On The Chicago Cubs

Simon: Finally, in another part of our show, we have an interview with Tom Ricketts, the new guy who owns the Chicago Cubs. You have an autographed baseball from Ernie Banks. Can President Obama use his executive powers to delegate better pitching to the Cubs, or, for that matter, the White Sox staff?

Axelrod: You know, we've explored this, and we don't know that we can do that by executive order. It would probably take an act of Congress, and there is a real conflict on the Hill about whether to help the Cubs. There [is] obviously a lot of interest from different cities who have a varied view, so it's probably up to Mr. Ricketts to take care of that.

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