John Podesta, a former Democratic White House chief of staff, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that criticism leveled at Mitt Romney by Republican presidential rivals over his private-equity record at Bain Capital LLC is fair and will haunt him in the November election. Podesta is now chairman of the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group with close ties to the White House.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the show with the chairman of the Center for American Progress and a former White House chief of staff, John Podesta. Thank you for being with us.
JOHN PODESTA: Great to be with you.
HUNT: Let me talk presidential politics for just a minute, because you can talk about almost anything, but Newt Gingrich - you one time said you thought he would be the most - the chief rival to Barack Obama. Do you think he has any chance to win the nomination?
PODESTA: Well, I thought what he would do would be the architect of the chief argument against Barack Obama.
HUNT: It hasn’t really worked that way.
PODESTA: But - well, Newt - Newt always kind of at some point blows up. And I guess if somebody had asked me the follow- up question, I would have predicted that.
HUNT: He does -
PODESTA: But he’s an articulate, smart guy, and he frames the argument as he’s doing, I think, with Romney today, framing -
PODESTA: Well, I think it’s - I think it’s fair to talk about it. You know, I don’t think they’re putting capitalism on trial or the free market on trial or even private equity on trial. Private equity can build companies, and it may make appropriate investments.
HUNT: So what’s the critique against Romney then?
PODESTA: The critique against Romney, really, is the way, under his leadership, Bain Capital operated, in the fact that so many companies went bankrupt under his tenure. I think 22 percent of the investments went bankrupt. They put a lot of people out of work, shipped a lot of jobs overseas, took a lot of federal money and then - and then saw those companies go belly-up.
HUNT: And you would expect -
PODESTA: So I think that’s - that’s a fair - it’s at least fair to kind of review his record, and I think that Romney hasn’t handled it very well by suggesting that a review of how he personally operated at Bain Capital or how Bain Capital operated under his leadership, you know, is an attack on the whole free enterprise system. I don’t think it is.
HUNT: We’ll hear a lot about that this fall, would you expect?
PODESTA: I think so. You know, I think that the other thing that’s come up this week - Sarah Palin weighed in on it - is the issue of Romney releasing his tax returns. He called on Senator Kennedy when he ran against him to release his tax records. Now turnabout’s a little fair play.
HUNT: Assess his strengths and weaknesses as a general election candidate, Mitt Romney.
PODESTA: Well, I think his - you know, his basic strength is that he kind of comes into it with an argument that “I can just do better.” You know, that he doesn’t - the - this moment, where the personal baggage around the way he conducted himself at Bain is there, but, you know, he’ll try to argue that I’m just a guy who can kind of level things out, be a calm person, operate in the middle, and - and try to put the economy back on track.
And, you know, I think left undusted up, if you will, by both his Republican opponents and certainly by what the president’s doing, you know, that’s - that has some appeal, I think, to - certainly to Republicans and maybe to some people in the middle.
But I think - now I think the issues are joined - the president gave that speech in Kansas, in Osawatomie, Kansas, about playing fair or playing by the rules, getting the middle class growing again. And I think Romney, if you look not just at his record, but at what he’s proposing, when you get deep into a plan - nobody has gone through those 59 points - you’ll see that, really, it’s more of more tax cuts for the wealthy -
HUNT: And that’ll be the central issue, the economy and that question of fairness?
PODESTA: I think it’s going to be the economy, yeah, and that question of fairness and playing by the rules and who’s going to benefit the middle class. And I think Obama bests him in that.
HUNT: Let’s talk about the White House for a minute. You worked in the Clinton White House. You know all these people very well. Was outgoing White House chief of staff Bill Daley treated fairly?
PODESTA: Well, I think he was treated fairly. Look, it’s a rough job in there. And I think he was brought in to try to calm things down, to - at a moment where I think that his skill set was - the president thought could lead to the ability to do more business, if you will, with the Republican leadership. But that was not to be. I don’t think that’s really Bill’s fault. I think he’s taking the spear for it, but I don’t really think it’s his fault.
HUNT: Was he undercut by the White House, though, from the beginning?
PODESTA: I don’t - you know, I would say he was undercut by not having a partner on the Republican side in the House or the Senate, by John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. These guys were just in no way interested in trying to come to the center and create a compromise with the president.
And after that, I think that, you know, Bill was in a position where I think he was feeling like he was a little bit off to the side. I think he made the right call in leaving, and I think Jack Lew is a really great choice to replace him.
HUNT: Tell me about Jack Lew, because he worked for you when he was the head of the OMB.
PODESTA: He was the head - head of OMB when I was the -
HUNT: OMB when you were White House chief of staff.
PODESTA: Chief of staff. We had the pleasure of working with President Clinton when we had -
HUNT: What would he bring to this job?
PODESTA: Well, he - look, he’s got very, very deep Washington experience. He’s been around for a very long time. He was the top aide to Tip O’Neill. He served President Clinton in a number of roles, including OMB director. He served at the State Department under Secretary Clinton, then at OMB. He is just a tough, great negotiator. He knows the budget inside and out. He’ll be able to run the - the policy side of the - of the White House, run the budget side, be able to talk to Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill -
HUNT: But, John, there is no real legislative agenda this year. It’s all about the political campaign, isn’t it?
PODESTA: I don’t think - I don’t think there’s going to be big bills passed, but, look, I think the president’s put forward just last week a major effort to try to create a new strategy on defense. That’s going to require some deft management, in terms of negotiating with people on Capitol Hill to make sure that that - that the - that what the president’s vision is and what Secretary Panetta’s vision is for a streamlined and more effective Pentagon is also shared on Capitol Hill. That’s (inaudible) a lot of work.
HUNT: But wouldn’t you agree that, other than that -
PODESTA: - from Leon Panetta’s job, but Jack will be very effective -
HUNT: But other than national security and foreign affairs, this is really all about re-election this year, isn’t it? That’s really what this White House -
PODESTA: No, I think - I - I disagree with that, Al. I think that, again, Jack’s experience at OMB in particular leads him to have great strength in doing what the president can do under the Constitution and laws of the United States. The president has been doing it the last several weeks, going out, trying to create initiatives under the current laws to try to bring people together.
HUNT: How about the government reorganization that they proposed the other day? Does that mean anything, or is that just shifting boxes -
PODESTA: No, no, I think it’s - I think the - if you look around the world, governments all over the world have reorganized themselves to make their governments more effective, more streamlined, but with the goal of making their economies more competitive and more effective.
HUNT: And does this make sense, what they’re doing, more effective?
PODESTA: Absolutely. It’s - he’s going to - going to both streamline the government, reduce the number of boxes, if you will. Ultimately, it’ll result in a reduction of the federal workforce, but most importantly, it’ll create a strategy to concentrate on what’s important to create the - to make sure that the United States economy is - is competitive, to make sure that manufacturing is supported and strengthened, to make sure that small businesses have a chance to succeed in this country.
And I think the federal government has a very important role in creating an infrastructure where competitiveness is a focus, and that’ll help the private-sector economy, where jobs are going to be created.
HUNT: John, who’s going to win the November election and by how much?
PODESTA: I think Barack Obama will win a three-party race, with someone on the Americans Elect ticket, and he’ll probably win going away, because I think that third party will siphon off -
HUNT: What type of people would be in the American Elect? And what are we looking for, someone from the right, someone from the Libertarians?
PODESTA: I’ll pick Alan Simpson.
HUNT: Alan Simpson? All right. You don’t really mean that, do you?
PODESTA: Yes, I do.
HUNT: Do you really? Okay, John Podesta, thank you very much for being with us.
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