The White House recruited John Podesta and Phil Schiliro in response to criticism from congressional Democrats worried that insularity, the lack of a unified message and poor long-term political planning would hurt the party in the 2014 election cycle.
The additions of Podesta and Schiliro are meant to deepen a White House bench that has been weak since the departure of many first-term insiders, as well as to reset political strategy for the remaining three years of the Obama presidency.
There was a realization among White House aides that the president had “hit a low point, perhaps the lowest moment of his presidency” with the mess of a healthcare rollout, the official said.
After a year that has seen President Obama’s poll numbers plummet and legislative efforts constantly stymied, the veteran Washington hands will help streamline the messaging and long-term strategy on healthcare and other issues that have dogged the White House — and by extension, congressional Democrats.
Democratic lawmakers are fearful that the administration’s missteps in the past year could jeopardize their Senate majority, plunging the White House into irrelevancy and badly damaging the party’s brand.
The political miscalculations were damaging in their own right.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill say that the problems have been magnified by an insular White House team that lacked depth and has failed to coordinate messaging.
Some lawmakers have criticized Miguel Rodriguez, who is currently at the helm of Legislative Affairs, for falling short of their expectations.
“There’s been some criticism that the current guy lacks the depth of relationships required on the Hill,” said the former senior official. While White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has scored points with melting some of the frosty relationships with Republicans, “You need someone with those Democratic relationships. Reinforcements are necessary.”
Schiliro, who headed up the White House legislative affairs shop at the start of the administration, will help ease some of the consternation.
Another former senior administration official said the White House is getting “a very seasoned, loyal strategist” who "plays the long game."
“He's not about immediate gratification," the former senior official said. "His job will be to look down the field and look around the corners.”
Insiders stressed Schiliro’s addition was not intended as a slight against Rodriguez, noting that legislative directors are routinely criticized by lawmakers.
But heading into “what will be a fairly bruising election cycle,” the White House wanted to provide reinforcements “more marinated in Capitol Hill,” the second official said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday said Obama was “very pleased with the performance of members of his senior team.”
But, Earnest said, the president is “excited” about being able to “bring a fresh perspective and a fresh set of eyes to some of the challenges that we’ve been dealing with here for the last several years.”
That will be particularly true of Podesta, who former officials say will bring experience honed as chief of staff during President Clinton’s second term.
With the "hands on" McDonough — who is said to work upwards of 18-hour days — knee-deep in problem solving, and trying to bridge the gap between the White House and Congress, they realized they needed “some additional support.”
Facing a GOP House, Obama can’t count on legislative victories and may need to rely on executive actions to put points on the scorecard.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said his advice would be crucial “when we can’t get cooperation out of Congress.”
He’ll also be able to support and advise McDonough. The pair worked together as aides to former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and have what a source familiar with the pair described as a “strong relationship.”
Podesta “won’t be someone who will be rolling over” McDonough, the first official said.
“While [McDonough] is going in depth on the ACA and Iran negotiations, he needs someone else to take a look at some of the other things that come up,” the official continued.
Earnest noted that Podesta also brought strong relationships with establishment Democrats, members of the media, and “other influential people in Washington” to the job.
That should ease the burden on White House officials like Dan Pfeiffer and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors. Former colleagues said that in recent months, the slew of challenges facing the president were falling on the pair, who were without the support they needed.
That pressure had been expected only to increase with the expected departure of longtime Obama confidant Pete Rouse, another former Daschle aide who at one point served as Obama’s interim chief of staff.
The appointments have already assuaged concerns among some Democrats, who describe the White House as poised for a rebound in the new year.
“It’s a tremendous one-two punch,” the second official said. “It would be hard to find two people better tasked for the job.”
“They do not panic, they’re strategic and they play the long game,” the official continued. “That means they’re not just looking at 2014, they’re looking at 2020 and what happens well after that.”
The goal, insiders say, is to mimic the final years of the Clinton administration, where the president used executive authority to accomplish policy goals and improve his popularity, despite a hostile Republican Congress.
“John had a lot to do with how that White House navigated the final months of the presidency. He left with a higher approval rating than Ronald Reagan,” the official said.