Politics
4:23 am
Sat December 14, 2013

White House Hires A Crisis Manager, Easing Democratic Worries

Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 9:31 pm

It's not big enough to be called a shakeup, but the new hire announced this week at the White House is important: John Podesta will come on board in January as a counselor to the president.

Podesta is a Democratic wise man, the founder of the Center for American Progress, a policy and personnel incubator for Democratic administrations, and he just started a new think tank on income inequality — the problem President Obama says will animate his second term.

Podesta is also a second-term crisis management specialist. He was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, helping him survive impeachment.

His hiring has already soothed some jangled nerves among the current president's supporters in Washington.

"I thought, 'Fantastic,' " says Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's former press secretary. She is one of a small, inside-the-beltway group of Democrats who have been desperate for reassurance that the recently unsteady Obama White House was getting its act together.

With the Podesta announcement, the White House appears to have sent that message.

"I think they've known for a while that they need to reach out, they need to broaden their circle a little," Myers says. "The president has been famously reluctant to do that. So how do you widen the lens? One of the ways you do that is you reach out and you bring in new people, and it's very helpful to bring in people who come preloaded with tremendous experience."

A Fan Of Executive Powers

Podesta is not a completely new face in the Obama camp. He ran the president-elect's widely praised transition team in 2008 and 2009, and he's been advising the White House from the outside.

For some time he's been telling the Obama team that as legislative action becomes increasingly less likely, it should focus more on using the president's executive powers. Podesta told NPR in January that Obama has plenty of authority under the Constitution to change and implement policy.

"I think that he's got a lot of cards to play, and I think he can be extremely successful," he said.

The White House has taken Podesta's advice — often to the frustration of Congress. With Podesta inside the administration, the president will probably do even more.

"The execution of government does make a difference," said Podesta in another NPR interview. "It sounds incremental, but in the end of the day, putting those points on the board will make a difference in terms of what the growth rate is, what the unemployment rate is."

GOP: Podesta Can't Change What's Already Broken

Execution of government is a Podesta focus — and lately it's been an embarassing weakness for the Obama administration.

Not surprisingly, Republicans dismissed the latest personnel move as a distraction, pointing to a series of troubles — from Syria to NSA eavesdropping and, above all, to the health care rollout — that have hurt the president's ratings on credibility and competence.

"I won't give the president advice on his own staff," says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, "but the problem here is the substance of his No. 1 issue. The issue he wanted to be most associated with is a failure, and no amount of shifting the chairs around on the Titanic is going to solve that problem."

Podesta can't erase the fact that the health care website didn't work or that the president made a promise that he now says ended up being inaccurate. But Democrat Steve Elmendorff says that Podesta can help — a lot.

"Nobody can make up for where they are," says Elmendorff, who was senior advisor to former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt. "The president's admitted they've made some mistakes. The staff has admitted they made some mistakes, and they need to fix it. And what John can do is provide direction and a fresh set of eyes and ears on how to move forward and do the right thing."

Podesta and the White House have a lot on their plate for the new year. They've got to get the health care law working; they need to figure out how to help Democrats get through the 2014 elections with the least amount of damage; and then, starting with the president's State of the Union speech early next year, they need to map out the final chapter of the Obama presidency.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. the Obama White House is bringing in the cavalry as it ends a tough political year. The president's making some changes, hiring a few new people to augment his current White House staff. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on an important new addition.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's not big enough to be called a shakeup but the new hire announced this week at the White House is important. John Podesta will be coming on board in January as a counselor to the president. Podesta is a democratic wise man, the founder of the Center for American Progress, a policy and personnel incubator for democratic administrations. And he just started a new think-tank on income inequality, the problem President Obama says will animate his second term. Podesta is also a second term crisis management specialist. He was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, helping him survive impeachment. And he's already soothed some jangled nerves among the current president's supporters in Washington.

DEE DEE MYERS: I thought fantastic.

LIASSON: That's Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton's former press secretary. She's one of a small, inside the beltway but very important to the White House group of Democrats who have been desperate for reassurance that the recently unsteady Obama White House was getting its act together. With the Podesta announcement, the White House appears to have sent that message.

MYERS: I think they've known for a while that they need to reach out, they need to broaden their circle a little. The president has been famously reluctant to do that, so how do you widen the lens? And one of the ways you do that is you reach out and you bring in new people, and it's very helpful to bring in people who come preloaded with tremendous experience, been there, understands the challenges of the White House and of the presidency writ large.

LIASSON: Podesta is not A completely new face in the Obama camp. He ran the president-elect's widely praised transition team in 2008 and 2009 and he's been advising the White House from the outside. For some time now, he's been telling the Obama team that as legislative action becomes increasingly less likely, it should focus more on using the president's executive powers. Here's Podesta in an NPR interview in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

JOHN PODESTA: He's got a lot of authority that comes to him under the laws and Constitution of the United States to implement policy change that I think can be effective to build that society of high growth competitiveness and innovation. So, I think that he's got a lot of cards to play and I think he can be extremely successful.

LIASSON: The White House has taken Podesta's advice, often to the frustration of Congress. And with Podesta inside, the president will probably do even more. Here's Podesta talking to me in another interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

PODESTA: The execution of government does make a difference. It sounds incremental, but in the end of the day, putting those points on the board will make a difference in terms of what the growth rate is, what the unemployment rate is.

LIASSON: Execution of government is a Podesta focus, and lately it's been an embarrassing weakness for the Obama administration. Not surprisingly, Republicans dismissed the latest personnel move as a distraction, pointing to a series of troubles, from Syria, to the NSA eavesdropping, but, above all, to the health care rollout that have hurt the president's ratings on credibility and competence. Here's Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: I won't give the president any advice on his own staff, but the problem here is the substance of his number one issue, the issue he wanted to be most associated with is a failure. And no amount of shifting the chairs around on the Titanic is going to solve that problem.

LIASSON: No, John Podesta can't erase the fact that the website didn't work or that the president made a promise that he now says ended up being inaccurate. But, says Democrat Steve Elmendorf, Podesta can help a lot.

STEVE ELMENDORF: Nobody can make up for where they are. The president's admitted he's made some mistakes, the staff has admitted they made some mistakes, and they need to fix it. And what John can do is provide direction and a fresh set of eyes and ears on how to move forward and do the right thing.

LIASSON: Podesta and the White House have a lot on their plates for the new year. They've got to get the health care law working, they need to figure out a plan to help Democrats get through the 2014 elections with the least amount of damage, and then, starting with the president's State of the Union speech early next year, they need to map out the final chapter of the Obama presidency. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.