AXELROD LOOKS AHEAD…. White House aides have a lot on their plate, but the significance of November’s midterm election is not lost on them. Ron Brownstein talked to David Axelrod about his plans and expectations for the next 10 or so months.

Axelrod’s checklist includes improvement in the economy, some (but not vastly more) legislative action and, most pointedly, an effort to draw sharper contrasts with Republican positions. His comments may foreshadow a much more pugnacious Democratic message as the election approaches.

“It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself,” Axelrod insisted. “And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”

Asked what has to happen in the next 10 months to produce the best possible result for Democrats in November, Axelrod didn’t hesitate in identifying his top priority: an economy that is adding, rather than losing, jobs each month. “I think job growth is certainly number one,” he said. “I think that’s how most people measure a recovering economy.”

To nudge that process along, he says, he expects Congress to quickly conclude legislation to promote job growth: “We have to take that up right away,” he said.

The same checklist features signing a health care reform bill, to which Axelrod added, “Then we have to go out and sell it.” He also emphasized Wall Street reform as an area where Dems can get a bill done and score points with voters.

As for throwing a few elbows, Axelrod envisions an electoral landscape that pits Democrats vs. Republicans, as compared to the right vs. Obama.

While Republicans are hoping that voters will view the election as a referendum on Democratic performance, he said Democrats will work to frame the election more as a choice between the parties — and present an aggressive case against the GOP alternative.

“They want to stand with the insurance industry on health care and protect the status quo, then let them defend that in an election,” Axelrod said. “If they want to stand with the banks and the financial industries, and protect the status quo, then let them explain that in an election. If the party that over eight years turned a… surplus into the most significant growth in national debt by far in the history of the country and left this president with a $1.3 trillion deficit when he walked in the door and an economic crisis, let them campaign on fiscal integrity. You know… we’re certainly willing to have that discussion. The difference is that we’ll have that discussion in the context of a campaign, and we haven’t, in the midst of a crisis, tried to campaign every day in the halls of Congress.” […]

Axelrod suggested that another pillar of the Democratic message this year will be that Republicans are offering a return to policies that produced the sharp economic downturn. “I think that the notion of going backward is a compelling message,” he said.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.