Among watchers of Barack Obama's presidency and Hillary Clinton's expected 2016 campaign launch, the coming departures of two top White House aides got lots of attention: senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, because he's been with Obama since before his 2008 win, and counselor John Podesta, because he's a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton whose move is all but proof of what everyone already assumed was true about Hillary's plans to run again.
But a more telling figure in the second-term White House departure lounge may actually be Jennifer Palmieri, Obama's affable but battle-tested communications director. Palmieri is leaving this spring to become the communications director for what doesn't yet exist as but will become the Clinton 2016 campaign.
Palmieri, 48, is viewed in the White House and national political press corps as accessible and an honest broker whose loyalty to politicians comes with expectations of professionalism and propriety by the candidate, but has its limits (see: John Edwards). Her hiring suggests that Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. senator, failed 2008 presidential candidate and secretary of state, either really is serious about wanting to reset her own infamously antagonistic relationship with the media or at least wants to send that signal.
Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said Palmieri is "as formidable an opponent as I've ever come across in political campaigns" and is someone so organized that "everyone in Palmieri's line of sight will know exactly what the campaign plan is and what they need to do to execute." She also has the credentials, Madden said, to push back when she thinks the candidate or eager-to-please aides are making a mistake.
"She knows her stuff," Madden said. "That's critical when you're the staffer that has to stare down the sycophants inside every campaign and offer the candidate unvarnished truths. It's important when you're developing the message and strategy privately and when you're executing it publicly." Palmieri declined to comment for the story.
While Palmieri hasn't worked directly for Hillary Clinton before, the two women have gotten to know one another over the course of the last two decades because Palmieri worked for the Bill Clinton White House both terms and during a six-month transition period after he left office. She and Podesta also are close with a long history of working well, even between the Clinton and the Obama administrations. Podesta founded the Center for American Progress, where Palmieri, during her time there from 2005-2011, built a reputation among Democrats for her ability to stand up a progressive war room of sorts, with a communications operation of about 50 people. Obama pollster Joel Benenson and Jim Margolis, a media consultant who has advised the Obama campaign as well as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, are among the other cross-over advisers expected to join the Clinton effort.
In the world of presidential runs, Palmieri was John Edwards' 2004 campaign press secretary and in a less formal capacity an adviser in 2008. Before Edwards' reputation was felled by an extramarital scandal and a trial, the 2004 vice presidential nominee was known for his "two Americas" speech in which he addressed the gulf between the wealthy and Americans living to paycheck to paycheck. With Obama and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren prodding for income inequality to be a rallying cry for Democrats in 2016, Hillary Clinton must consider how she wants to address the issue.
Perhaps even more important for the Clintons is the value of Palmieri's experience with scandal. A large part of her battle-testing was during the extended drama surrounding Edwards' affair with videographer Rielle Hunter, his trial on charges related to allegations of illegal campaign contributions, and the death from cancer of his embattled wife Elizabeth Edwards, to whom Palmieri was a devoted friend.
"There's an old saying in campaign world, you learn more from the losing ones than the winning ones and there's some truth in that," said Mike Feldman, a former top adviser to Vice President Al Gore. "You don't control all the variables."
"If you're looking to establish trust and credibility from the beginning," he said of Palmieri, "you couldn't do any better."
Democrat strategist Bill Burton, a former Obama spokesman, said Palmieri "is one of the greatest communicators in the Democratic Party and a huge get" for Clinton. "She will help to bridge the White House and the Clinton campaign in a way that few people could," and be "instrumental to Secretary Clinton's success."