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Transcript: Major Garrett Interviews Senior White House Adviser David Axelrod

MAJOR GARRETT: David Axelrod, always a pleasure. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Good to be with you.

GARRETT: Take us in the room last night, the Roosevelt Room. Give us a sense of not only the president's demeanor, but those who are closest to him -- yourself, Robert, others.

AXELROD: Yes. Well, I think there's a great deal of joy. This has been a long endeavor and a long, hard road. But there was just a great deal of satisfaction in the knowledge that millions and millions and millions of Americans are more -- will be more secure as a result of that effort.

I can honestly say that, having been with him on election night and having been with him last night, the president was -- was -- seemed happier and more satisfied last night than he was last November 8th, because he felt that he accomplished something that will benefit the country and -- and the American people now and for generations to come.

GARRETT: And what do you believe this gives you and this White House going forward, politically and legislatively? You're in a different spot.

AXELROD: Well, you know, I'll leave that to you -- you pundits to -- to -- to cull through. I know, you know, two weeks ago, we were all -- we were all politically inept. We were all thumbs. Today, everybody is giving us great kudos.

Our mission is to focus on the problems of the country and do -- and deal with those and try and move the country forward. And our view is that the politics will take care of itself. I think that this was a major accomplishment -- an accomplishment for the American people. And as the provisions of this law get implemented, as small businesses get the tax cuts that will flow very quickly, as -- as kids with pre-existing conditions now get onto their family insurance and they're no longer discriminated against, as lifetime caps and annual caps come off of insurance this year, so that people who are seriously ill don't have to worry about running out of their insurance benefits, there's going to be a -- really, an awareness of what -- of what this means.

GARRETT: I don't need to tell you that there's been a narrative running this year-and-a-half about the president -- what is he made of? What does this achievement say about that question?

AXELROD: Yes...

GARRETT: How does it answer it?

AXELROD: Well, look, there's no doubt that the -- the opposition to this has been strong. The -- the insurance industry has run a very determined campaign. The leadership ran a very determined campaign.

But the president never wavered, never flagged, never said let's retreat, let's turn away. He -- he understands that this problem of health care and health insurance has plagued this country for 100 years and that it was getting worse, that it was a cloud on our fiscal horizon, but also putting enormous pressure on families and businesses and he was determined to get this done.

And whenever we hit a bump in the road -- and there have been many bumps in the road -- he's the one who kept us pointed in the right direction, he's the one who moved us forward.

So anyone who doubts his mettle, his steel, really isn't paying attention.

GARRETT: In the Politico and "The New York Times," there was a variation on that theme, that Speaker Pelosi put some steel in the president's spine and told the president in no uncertain terms, don't you dare bring a Plan B, a smaller, more incrementalist approach to this, after the Scott Brown election;  I won't take it up. The Democrats in the House won't deal with it. How significant was that message to the White House about reformulating a strategy and going forward...

AXELROD: Yes...

GARRETT: -- and going for broke?

AXELROD: -- you know, I have enormous respect for the speaker and her leadership here has been absolutely essential to the outcome. But I can tell you, having been here for the last 13 months, there's never been any doubt in the president's mind that we needed to move forward in a comprehensive way because that was the only way that we could solve some of the major problems. Everybody says they want to do away with discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, but you can't do that unless you do it in a comprehensive way. And there are many other aspects of this that couldn't move forward in a piecemeal fashion.

So he didn't need any encouragement from anyone. That was his premise from the beginning and he's pursued it diligently.

GARRETT: Nevertheless, a Plan B was drawn here up just in case.

AXELROD: Well, we -- as far as I am concerned, and based on all my conversations with the president, whatever alternatives were being drawn up -- and I -- there are always contingencies being drawn up in government and politics -- his direction and his edict and his commitment has always been to deal with this problem comprehensively, as we did yesterday.

GARRETT: There are three attorneys general at least -- Virginia, South Carolina and Florida, maybe more -- who will file lawsuits against this, specifically on the individual mandate, because, they say, state insurance is regulated on the state level; there is not interstate transactions of those; this violates the (U.S. Constitution's) Commerce Clause .

Evaluate based on what you discussed with (White House Counsel) Bob Bauer and others how significant a threat this is to this legislative (INAUDIBLE)...

AXELROD: Well, first of all, Major, let me say that any time a major piece of legislation is enacted, there are lawsuits that follow. So it's not surprising that lawsuits are going to be filed here. Our attorneys, the Justice Department, everyone who has looked at this is very confident that this will withstand legal challenges. So, you know, we will -- we will engage in those -- in those litigations and we're confident that it will turn out the right way.

GARRETT: Nothing about them suggests any weakness in the legislative approach or the ability to defend it in court?

AXELROD: You know, no. And -- and the thing that I find curious about it is, as we met with Republican senators over the summer and -- and fall and last -- for much of last year about this, many of them suggested the mandate as well, as a means of -- of getting to the comprehensive place we needed to. And so there was a bipartisan opinion that this is the way we should proceed.

But I understand politics. And now this is done and so there is this predictable reaction to it. But at the end of the day, this program is going to stand. Health reform -- health insurance reform is going to move forward and the American people are going to be more secure for it.

GARRETT: do I hear you saying this is politics masquerading as law?

AXELROD: I'll let others characterize it. I -- I know all the attorneys general are elected, so, you know, whenever anyone is elected, you have to assume politics plays some role. But -- but it doesn't matter. These suits were going to come. They came after Social Security. They came after Medicare. They've come after almost every piece of legislation. And that's our system. They will be litigated and they will be decided. And they will be decided in our favor, I'm confident.

GARRETT: Thursday in Iowa City, May 2007, then Candidate Obama, somewhat of a long shot back then, said he would push for universal health care coverage.

How much of a disappointment is it for him to fall short of that and is that still an unrealized goal that will be pursued in his first term?

AXELROD: I think that what we've enacted here, taking the best ideas from Republicans and Democrats, working with the system that we have, comes awfully close to that goal and certainly far closer than we've ever been before. So there's no sense of disappointment here -- 31, 32 million more Americans will have health coverage they can afford. Small businesses that are being priced out of the market will now get substantial tax credits in order to -- to give health insurance to their employees.

This is a major, major step forward. As the president said last night, it's not perfect. But it is -- it is much, much better than the status quo.

GARRETT: Is this it for the first term?

AXELROD: Huh...

GARRETT: On this issue -- on this issue, I mean. Is universal coverage still an unrealized goal, one that you'll pursue?

AXELROD: Well, now, you know, -- look, now our -- now our goal is to take this law and implement it effectively, efficiently, with great accountability. And that's what the American people expect of us. We're going to take that responsibility and run with it.