MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
This afternoon at the White House, the president is working with his aides on his first address to a joint session of Congress. Next Tuesday night, Mr. Obama will lay out his agenda for the year and it's a huge one: economic recovery, financial re-regulation, healthcare, climate change, deficit reduction.
NPR's Mara Liasson talked to President Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, about the speech and about Mr. Obama's first month in office.
MARA LIASSON: Every president brings with him a trusted political adviser, but each one carves out a slightly different role in the White House. Yesterday, while a gang of youthful speech writers waited outside his office, David Axelrod described his role as the keeper of the Obama brand.
DAVID AXELROD: That's a way of putting it, yeah. I think my role is what it's been for the last six years, which is to try and help communicate the message of Barack Obama and to make sure that the operation is faithful to the things that he wants to communicate to the American people.
LIASSON: It's a more narrowly defined role than his predecessor, Karl Rove, played for President Bush.
AXELROD: Karl Rove's aspirations were different than mine. He was interested in building a Republican party for generations to come. And I'm not belittling that. My role is more circumscribed. And I'm not looking to run a Democratic Party from the White House. I just want to help the president be successful and that's what I'm going to do.
LIASSON: The biggest communications opportunity for any president is the annual address to Congress. Unlike past speeches, Axelrod says this one won't have one overriding focus - like universal healthcare or fighting terrorism.
AXELROD: The one thing about Barack Obama is that there aren't a lot of surprises. He's said consistently that we not only need to jumpstart our economy now and correct the problems in our financial markets and have proper regulation, but that we need to really push forward on healthcare because the costs of healthcare are crushing families and businesses all over this country. We have to move forward on energy because we continue to be mortgaged to our dependence on oil.
And there are dire implications for the planet as well. And we have to press forward on education because if we don't have a highly educated workforce, that, as much as anything, will predict our future in this global economy.
LIASSON: That's a hugely ambitious agenda right there. But Axelrod says President Obama also wants to bend the deficit arrow back to fiscal responsibility.
AXELROD: It's going to involve governing in a different way - making some hard choices. We're going to have to sacrifice some things we may want to do in order to accomplish the things we absolutely have to do.
LIASSON: In the speech on Tuesday, and the budget overview he'll send to Congress on Thursday, the president will be making a complex and difficult argument - explaining why we have to invest and cut at the same time. In their first month in office, the Obama team has learned a lot. One important lesson: It's a mistake to focus too much on the quest for bipartisanship instead of on the content of the president's initiatives. Another lesson: It's a good idea to get Mr. Obama outside of Washington. If Axelrod's job is to keep the Obama brand popular and effective, the president's cross-country travel in the last two weeks has helped.
AXELROD: We had strong support for the recovery act before he went out. It was even stronger when he did go out. And so, you know, we're not going to make it a daily practice for him to be out and about. And, you know, he's got a lot of responsibilities to discharge. But I don't think he's going to cut back on that dialogue with the American people. That would be a terrible mistake.
LIASSON: Right now, White House aides believe there is no danger of overexposing the president. Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked for George W. Bush and John McCain, agrees. Although Mr. Obama's very high job approval ratings didn't get him many Republican votes on the stimulus bill, McKinnon thinks eventually the president will be able to turn his popularity into greater political leverage.
MARK MCKINNON: The inside game just gets you not very far in Washington, D.C., but the outside game gets you a long way when you get outside the Beltway. And that's where the Republicans will feel the heat, is when he goes out to their districts, not when he's sitting around watching the Super Bowl with them.
LIASSON: McKinnon says while the agenda seems overwhelming - and there are real questions about how much change the system can bear or afford - there's no point holding anything back.
MCKINNON: President Obama is more popular than leprechauns and unicorns. And that's why I encourage that he spend the capital that he's got now because the issues he's dealing with now are real crises. And so, the measure of his administration and his success will be judged by what he does in these three to six months.
LIASSON: The president seems to understand that well. Here's what he told a group of voters at a town hall meeting in Florida last week.
BARACK OBAMA: I expect to be judged by results. And I'm not going to make any excuses. If stuff hasn't worked and people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction, then you'll have a new president.
LIASSON: On Tuesday, President Obama will talk in detail about that new direction. It will be one of his best chances to lay out his agenda for Congress and the American people.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.