President Barack Obama is enlisting John Podesta, a longtime Democratic strategist aligned with opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, to join his inner circle to help renew his second-term agenda.
Podesta, 64, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, enters the White House as Obama’s approval ratings have fallen to all-time lows since the fumbled rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He’ll focus on energy and climate change, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Podesta is the second addition in a week to a West Wing trying to regroup from the Obamacare setbacks. Phil Schiliro, Obama’s former congressional liaison and a onetime Democratic aide in the U.S. House, is returning to oversee implementation of the health-care law.
New to Obama’s White House, Podesta has been an outside adviser since before the president took office. He led Obama’s transition team after the 2008 election and has been chairman of the Center for American Progress, a policy research organization he founded that is closely tied to the White House.
He has warned of the dangers of failing to curb the use of fossil fuels. In January 2012, he co-wrote an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal with billionaire investor Tom Steyer, who is campaigning against the Keystone pipeline.
“Our economy can go from being weighed down by oil imports to soaring ahead, powered increasingly by domestically produced clean energy, and energy services and technology,” the two wrote in the piece.
Podesta’s group, along with other environmental organizations, opposes the project, which would link Canadian oil sands with refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast. The Center for American Progress Action Fund co-sponsored an event last week to rebut the contention that Keystone wouldn’t significantly increase carbon-dioxide emissions.
Podesta will also counsel Obama on White House organization and how to leverage his executive authority to get legislation passed during the three years remaining in his presidency.
Both Podesta’s and Schiliro’s positions are temporary and don’t require Senate confirmation. Podesta, who will begin in early January, has agreed to serve for a year, one of the people said. Schiliro, who is only returning to the White House for a couple of months, was Obama’s chief envoy to Capitol Hill when the health-care law was passed in 2010.
While Obama says he takes responsibility for the troubled Oct. 1 health-care start, the personnel moves show he’s looking to bring in new advisers beyond his inner circle, which includes chief of staff Denis McDonough and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Another aide, Pete Rouse, who worked for Obama in the U.S. Senate and was interim White House chief of staff after the departure of Rahm Emanuel, plans to leave the administration.
David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser, welcomed word of Podesta’s new post, posting on Twitter that he’s a “great and timely addition” to the White House and is “smart, experienced & committed to the progressive agenda. He’ll help move things forward.”
Obama last week marked the 10-year anniversary of the Center for American Progress with a speech highlighting growing income disparity in the U.S., calling it the “defining challenge of our time.” He promised to spend the rest of his term furthering upward mobility for middle-income Americans.
Podesta planned to open a research center to investigate the causes and effects of growing economic inequality, the New York Times reported on Nov. 6.
At the start of that address, Obama smiled and thanked the policy group for giving him “a lot of good policy ideas, but also giving me a lot of staff.”
“My friend, John Podesta, ran my transition,” Obama said. “My chief of staff, Denis McDonough, did a stint at CAP. So you guys are obviously doing a good job training folks.”
McDonough began recruiting his former boss several weeks ago, according to one of the people familiar with the process. Podesta met with Obama at the White House last week and accepted the new job, the person said.
Podesta, a native of Chicago, served in the Clinton administration as a senior policy adviser on such issues as government information, privacy, telecommunications and security and regulatory policy. He also was on the National Security Council, in addition to serving as chief of staff.
After Clinton left office, Podesta founded the Center for American Progress in 2003.
At times, Podesta has been critical of the Obama White House. Earlier this year, he spoke out against the president’s refusal to provide the legal rationale for unmanned drone strikes, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that Obama was “ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days.”
He has also spoken against the president’s negotiating posture in budget talks, saying on March 5 that the White House failed to pressure House Republicans to ease up on across-the-board spending reductions, even if those cuts caused pain in the military.
“They miscalculated, particularly on the military side,” he said on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance” program.
Podesta also disagreed with Obama’s search for a “grand bargain” of budget cuts and tax increases, even as the president lobbied Republican lawmakers at private dinners from March through May.
“For the last three years, people have been arguing for a grand bargain, go big, etcetera,” Podesta said in the Bloomberg Television interview. “I think maybe it’s time to go small, to try to find a way to unravel this crazy sequester” of automatic budget cuts.
Podesta has supported a value-added tax, which taxes consumption, as a way to add revenue to the federal budget. He said that while such a tax may be regressive, some products could be exempt and some of the proceeds used “to support low-wage workers,” he said in September 2009 on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt.”
Podesta, who is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, has written books or contributed articles on the progressive movement and how it can save the U.S. economy and on the foreign policy and national security implications of climate change.