When the Republican victory in the 2010 midterm election raised the prospect of political gridlock, John Podesta was ready with an answer: The president should bypass Congress and wield the executive powers of his office.
Less than two weeks after the returns came in, Podesta had compiled 47 pages of proposals for unilateral action on issues from immigration to solar energy. President Barack Obama’s ability to “accomplish important change through these powers should not be underestimated,” he wrote.
Now, Podesta’s appointment as counselor to Obama adds a strong promoter of that strategy to the president’s inner circle as Republicans stand in the way of the White House agenda.
The activist vision of the 64-year-old former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton could play out across the economy, encompassing matters such as greenhouse gas emission standards for power plants, food safety and border enforcement.
“John will be an advocate for forceful executive action, either for its own sake or to force congressional action,” said Jake Siewert, a former Clinton White House press secretary who is now a managing director at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Among the proposals Podesta forwarded to Obama three years ago as head of the Center for American Progress, a research group with close ties to the administration, were a $2-per-barrel fee on imported oil to finance clean-energy projects, solar panels for Air Force hangars and curbs on detention of undocumented immigrants without criminal records.
Greater use of executive power would raise the stakes in Washington, provoking a clash with Republicans that could lead to a wave of congressional hearings, lawsuits from aggrieved parties and more tense negotiations over spending and taxes. It would also add to Republican bitterness already fueled by Senate Democrats’ move to limit filibusters of Obama appointees.
Podesta may find a receptive audience in the White House.
“He’ll be preaching to the choir in this administration,” said Bruce Reed, who worked with Podesta as Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser and until recently was Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff.
Under the theme “We Can’t Wait,” the White House started a series of executive actions before the 2012 election, including an order to stop deporting undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, if they have no criminal record. Unable to win passage of a gun-control bill, Obama announced moves on firearms using his presidential authority earlier this year.
Podesta joins a White House at a low ebb in public standing after Obama’s inability to win passage of a revamp of immigration policy, a 16-day government shutdown and the botched rollout of the federal online insurance exchanges at the core of his signature health-care law.
After starting his second term with an inaugural address calling for a more activist government -- he vowed to come up with executive moves to fight climate change “if Congress won’t act soon” -- Obama has little to show for it.
His 42 percent job approval in the Gallup Poll for the week ended Dec. 15 is down 10 percentage points from the same week a year earlier and comparable to the 41 percent approval at this point in the administration of George W. Bush, who left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history.
At the end of the fifth year of an administration, when attention shifts to the next election, a president has “a sense that the sand is running out of the hourglass,” said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Your time is short and you want to do as much as you can,” said Hess, who has studied the presidency since serving in Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. “You then want to do things by executive orders and executive regulations.”
Because government regulations take so much time to complete if they are to withstand legal challenges, the coming year will be crucial in setting the administration’s final initiatives, said Carol Browner, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under Clinton.
“It takes you a minimum two years to get a rule done, start to finish,” said Browner, who’s also a former Obama White House aide. “They’ve got to have a clear agenda now. What are the 10 or 20 things that are most important that they want to get done before he leaves office using existing authority?”
While Podesta recused himself from involvement in the administration’s consideration of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline because of his public opposition to the project, his portfolio will include environmental and energy issues.
His presence in the White House will reassure environmentalists that administration regulations on cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants will be as “effective as possible,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where Podesta has been on the board of the group’s political arm.
“Beyond that, he’ll be looking at all the tools that he can use to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change,” Goldston said.
Podesta didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
As chief of staff during the final years of Clinton’s presidency, he oversaw a frenzy of rule-making, executive orders and land-preservation edicts. He was so closely identified with the burst of activity that some aides dubbed it “Project Podesta,” according to a National Journal report at the time.
The regulations in the administration’s final months included protection of 59 million acres of forest from roads and logging; work-safety rules on repetitive stress injuries that required millions of offices and factories to be redesigned; and more stringent standards for arsenic in drinking water.
Clinton designated more land protected in the lower 48 U.S. states than any president since Theodore Roosevelt. He made five of the national monument designations on Jan. 17, 2001, with only three days left in his term.
Podesta “cleared the way” for conservation regulations, particularly a rule prohibiting virtually all road-building, logging, or coal, gas, oil and other mineral leasing in designated roadless areas of national forests, said Bruce Babbitt, who served as Clinton’s Interior secretary.
That rule, issued eight days before Clinton left office, survived legal challenges that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
“The roadless rule was a huge achievement and a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Babbitt.
During Clinton’s last year in office, Republican lawmakers tried to thwart an EPA regulation in the final stages of review. They tacked a rider onto a bill funding military construction and disaster assistance that would have barred the use of government money to complete the rule which set stricter pollution standards for watersheds.
The president couldn’t afford to veto the legislation, and after a series of meetings led by Podesta, his aides came up with their own gambit: stall on signing the legislation while they rushed the rule through the review, said Chuck Fox, then the EPA’s assistant administrator for water.
That culminated in a 90-minute meeting in Podesta’s office in which Browner and then budget director Jack Lew personally negotiated the rule’s final wording line by line, Fox said.
Once Browner signed the regulation, Fox jumped in a taxi to get the document to the printers to beat an end-of-day deadline to publish the regulation in the Federal Register, as required.
Though Republicans were furious over the end run, the rule survived, said Fox, now program director at Oceans 5, a conservation group.
Podesta “was very bold on it,” Fox said.