David Axelrod, a senior campaign strategist for President Obama, talked yesterday with CNN’s Candy Crowley, who asked whether it’s surprising that the White House has had “a hard time with Congress.” Axelrod responded:

“I think this is something — something different going on right now. When you have the leader — the Republican leader of the Senate say, ‘Our number one goal — in the midst of this economy, our number one goal is to defeat the president,’ and they’re acting like it.

“They don’t want to cooperate. They don’t want to help. Even on measures to help the economy that they traditionally have supported before, like a payroll tax cut, like infrastructure, rebuilding our roads and bridges and surface transport. These — so you have to ask you a question: Are they willing to tear down the economy in order to tear down the president or are they going to cooperate?

“And, listen, there’s a reason why the Congress is at 9 percent in some polls, approval, lowest in history. Because this is different than we’ve ever seen before.” [emphasis added]

This comes just three weeks after Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Obama/Biden 2012, sent an email to the Obama for America list, arguing that the Republican strategy is “to suffocate the economy for the sake of what they think will be a political victory.”

In other words, the “sabotage” question — concerns that Republicans are deliberately hurting the country, holding back the economy on purpose, for the express purpose of undermining the Obama presidency — is gaining mainstream traction. No one close to the president has been willing to broach this provocative line, and now we have one of Obama’s top political aides raising the question on national television.

Greg Sargent added, “At the very least, this may be the first time a top Obama campaign official has linked this argument to the idea that this GOP behavior may be historically unprecedented, and that it may be a key reason for Congress’ historical unpopularity — it’s a broadening of the indictment.”

Quite right. And as the indictment broadens, so too does the number of prominent figures make the accusations. What was once a rarely-asked question, largely confined to lefty blogs, is now a concern being raised by two top officials on the president’s re-election team, two leading Democratic senators, and a wide variety of prominent pundits, including a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Nobel laureate.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising, of course, given the larger circumstances. Just over the last few months, we’ve seen the Republican debt-ceiling scandal, the GOP-driven downgrade, the Republican rejection of any efforts to boost the economy, the GOP pleading with the Federal Reserve not to even try to improve conditions, repeated Republican threats of government shutdowns, GOP lawmakers announcing their opposition to their own economic ideas, and Republicans killing jobs bills, large and small.

Under the circumstances, it’s hardly shocking that folks might start to wonder out loud, “Hmm, maybe Republicans are trying to hurt the economy on purpose?”

Steve Benen

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.