NBC's Guthrie Lobs Softball to Axelrod On 'Whether Racism Animated' Obama Critics

In an interview with former Obama White House aide David Axelrod on Monday's NBC Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie tossed a softball on "whether racism animated some of the President's critics." She read an inflammatory quote from Axelrod's new book: "Some folks simply refused to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country." Without challenging the assertion, Guthrie wondered: "Is that you view and does the President share that view in your mind?"

Axelrod – whom Guthrie failed to identify as an NBC News political analyst – stood by his remarks: "Well, it's clearly my view or I wouldn't have written it, and I'm sure he feels that way to. Is that the main reason for the opposition to him? No. But has any other president experienced someone shouting 'You lie!' in the U.S. Congress or persistent questions about his citizenship? No. And I think that reflects some attitudes that are deeply ingrained in some people in this country."

Guthrie followed up by questioning Axelrod's account of Mitt Romney suggesting Obama only won reelection in 2012 due to the black vote:

Quickly let's clear something up. There was a bit of a controversy last week. You write in the book that when president – or excuse me, when candidate Romney called President Obama to concede on election night in 2012, that the President hung up and reported to you, "Oh, he said, yeah, we turned out the vote in Milwaukee....In other words, black people, that's what he thinks this is all about." Now Romney's body man has said, "Wait, I was sitting right next to Romney, he never said any such thing."

Axelrod doubled down: "Well, there were five people standing around the President when he got off the phone, all of them have the same recollection. Several of them have gone public since this started. I don't think the President made that up."

Guthrie began the exchange with a tougher question on foreign policy: "...the President has ruled out ground troops to fight ISIS. He's been fond in the past years of saying the tide of war is receding. Reality seems to be telling a different story. Do you think he underestimated the threat of ISIS?"

Axelrod dismissed the observation:

Look, Savannah, when I look back to when I arrived at the White House, and you were there, we had 180,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan and mostly in Iraq. The guy who was the architect as the worst terrorist attack in history was at large and all of his lieutenants. We had a credible threat on Washington on Inauguration Day. I wrote about that in my book. So are we better off today than we were then? I think we are.

In her second foreign policy question, Guthrie lobbed another slow pitch to Axelrod: "Speaker Boehner invited Netanyahu to address the Congress to argue for more sanctions [against Iran], something that the President doesn't agree with. Does that feel like a diss to you?"

Axelrod used the opportunity to bash Netanyahu's supporters: "I think this has more to do, however, with Israeli politics and the fact that Netanyahu has a very close election two weeks after his visit to Congress and this was cooked up by people who wanted to promote his candidacy. Unfortunately it's at the expense, perhaps, of very delicate peace talks and I regret that."

Guthrie failed to point out that a former top Obama campaign aide has been working for Netanyahu's political opponents ahead of the upcoming Israeli election.

Here is a full transcript of the February 9 interview:

7:08 AM ET

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: David Axelrod served as a senior adviser to President Obama and he is the author of a new book called Believer: My Forty Years In Politics. David, good morning, good to see you.

DAVID AXELROD: Good to be with you.

GUTHRIE: We'll talk about the book in a moment. But let me ask you about this, the President has ruled out ground troops to fight ISIS. He's been fond in the past years of saying the tide of war is receding. Reality seems to be telling a different story. Do you think he underestimated the threat of ISIS?

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Political Battle Against ISIS; Former WH Senior Advisor On President's Next Move]

DAVID AXELROD: Look, Savannah, when I look back to when I arrived at the White House, and you were there, we had 180,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan and mostly in Iraq. The guy who was the architect as the worst terrorist attack in history was at large and all of his lieutenants. We had a credible threat on Washington on Inauguration Day. I wrote about that in my book. So are we better off today than we were then? I think we are. But this is going to be an ongoing problem that this president's going to have to have to struggle with and I suspect future presidents are going to have to struggle with.

GUTHRIE: Let's talk about a different foreign policy issue. You've no doubt heard about this dust-up between the Israeli prime minister and President Obama, where Speaker Boehner invited Netanyahu to address the Congress to argue for more sanctions, something that the President doesn't agree with. Does that feel like a diss to you? And you probably have some insight into this relationship between these two leaders, President Obama and Netanyahu.

AXELROD: Well, clearly they haven't gotten along, they've disagreed on a number of things. I think this has more to do, however, with Israeli politics and the fact that Netanyahu has a very close election two weeks after his visit to Congress and this was cooked up by people who wanted to promote his candidacy. Unfortunately it's at the expense, perhaps, of very delicate peace talks and I regret that.

GUTHRIE: Let's talk politics, you are an expert on that after your forty years, as the book mentions. Do you think a Bush versus Clinton race in 2016 is good for the country? And I know you're probably gonna vote for the Democrat, but I mean, in terms of having the same two families.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Race for The White House; Former WH Senior Advisor On 2016 Candidates]

AXELROD: Look, I know and like both of them actually. I think, you know, it is easy to say that, but let's see what the quality of the race is. Bush is already out there speaking about income inequality, which I think is a great sign, and the problems of the middle class. Hillary, I think, will come out with some strong ideas on the same subject and maybe different ideas. And we can have a big national debate. I think the Bush-Clinton thing will fade away when the personalities come forward.

GUTHRIE: You write in your book that the question of whether racism animated some of the President's critics was a question you deflected through your time in government. But you take it on-

AXELROD: Yes, probably in questions from you.

GUTHRIE: You take it on in the book and you say directly, "Some folks simply refused to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country." Is that you view and does the President share that view in your mind?

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: President's True "Believer"; Former WH Senior Advisor On His Time With Obama]

AXELROD: Well, it's clearly my view or I wouldn't have written it, and I'm sure he feels that way to. Is that the main reason for the opposition to him? No. But has any other president experienced someone shouting "You lie!" in the U.S. Congress or persistent questions about his citizenship? No. And I think that reflects some attitudes that are deeply ingrained in some people in this country.

GUTHRIE: Quickly let's clear something up. There was a bit of a controversy last week. You write in the book that when president – or excuse me, when candidate Romney called President Obama to concede on election night in 2012, that the President hung up and reported to you, "Oh, he said, yeah, we turned out the vote in Milwaukee and he thinks it's all about-"

AXELROD: And Cleveland.

GUTHRIE: And Cleveland. And he says, "In other words, black people, that's what he thinks this is all about." Now Romney's body man has said, "Wait, I was sitting right next to Romney, he never said any such thing."

AXELROD: Well, there were five people standing around the President when he got off the phone, all of them have the same recollection. Several of them have gone public since this started. I don't think the President made that up. I don't think Romney was trying to be ungracious either. But you know, we had just come through a long battle, they saw this through different lenses, and it's natural to have these kinds of reactions I think.

GUTHRIE: Well, David Axelrod, the book is called Believer. You even talk about the time when the President hurled an expletive at you. I guess you haven't live until that happens.

AXELROD: He didn't remember that, but I did.

GUTHRIE: Okay. Thank you so much, good to have you here.

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