Have David Axelrod and Barack Obama "gone Washington?"
That was NBC News's Brian William's provocative charge that made Obama's senior adviser shift in his chair.
"The going Washington suggestion implies that you're doing things to perpetuate our power," Axelrod said. "If we were focused on our own interests and on politics we wouldn't have done what we did."
And Axelrod's response to criticism that the administration can't deal with crises can be summed up this way: everything you think is bad is really not as bad as it seem. "They might not be all well appreciated today, but we're going to be a better country because he was willing to make those decisions. That's an un-Washington thing to so say."
"Going Washington," Axelrod said, "is when our policies and special interests are subjugated to the money that is being made," mentioning the Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads group, which is spending millions to flagellate Democrats across the country.
"I can just tell you that over the course of the last couple of years we've dealt with more pressing issues as well as emergencies as any president has. ... Two wars and economic crisis as deep as any since the Great Depression." He listed others: "The flu. Pirates. The oil leak."
Over and over, Williams tried to get Axelrod to acknowledge, or explain, why it seemed like the energy had gone out of the executive branch. Or why expectations hadn't been met.
"'There's no doubt that we've gone through an extraordinary period in this country," Axelrod said. "The middle class lost five percent of its income during the recession." But "what we've done is taken the steps that were necessary to tie off that free fall, to stop that free fall, and get us going in the right direction. And we've got to keep doing."
"Yes, we've made progress, but it's not nearly the progress to deal with the devastation that was wrought."
As to the topic du jour -- Rahm Emanuel's decision to run for mayor -- Axelrod was not ready to make an endorsement just yet. "Should Rahm decide to do that, he has all the tools to be a great mayor. No one hands you that responsibility. No one hands you that job. You've got to earn it."
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.