John Podesta’s fingerprints are all over the White House agenda just three weeks into his tenure.
The White House has focused on income inequality and executive action since President Obama’s new adviser came on at the beginning of the year — demonstrating a singlemindedness often missing during a rocky 2013.
Keeping Democrats excited and confident in Obama this year is vital to Democratic hopes of retaining the Senate in the midterms, where voter turnout is often the difference between winning and losing.
One former senior administration official said the White House “has got to be worried about the notion of a six-year itch.” Only 31 percent of Democrats strongly approved of Obama in a recent Reuters poll.
“The base has been rattled by ObamaCare and disturbed by the NSA,” the official said, adding that Podesta will “be a key part of an agenda that will get the party excited again.”
“He’ll be valuable towards keeping the base activated and keeping the party feeling good about the White House.”
A senior White House official said Podesta has been toiling on two specific issue areas: an examination of the way the administration can use executive action to set climate policy, and work on privacy issues that have arisen out of controversy over National Security Agency surveillance programs.
Both climate change and government surveillance are thorny issues that resonate within the liberal base.
Podesta wrote a letter to environmental groups last week voicing surprise that they would question the president’s energy strategy, and vowing “significant work” on climate change throughout the rest of his second term. Obama also tapped Podesta to lead a study into the risks of bulk data collection by the government and private corporations.
Meanwhile, the White House has been focused sharply on economic messaging, and has held a relentless schedule of events on economic mobility ahead of the Jan. 28 State of the Union address.
It has also signaled a new effort in which Obama will use his “pen and phone” to advance his policies when Congress has declined to do his bidding.
Both the economic focus and the use of executive actions are hallmarks of Podesta’s time as former President Clinton’s chief of staff in his second term.
After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, Clinton used his executive authorities to implement environmental protections for federal lands, institute medical privacy protections and create “welfare to work” partnerships with private businesses. Despite the lurid details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton left with the highest approval rating of any president since World War II.
Podesta has long argued that executive actions provide a dual benefit, both rallying the base through policy victories and creating a perception of momentum and snowballing accomplishments.
“Progress, not positioning, is what the public wants and deserves,” Podesta wrote shortly after the 2010 midterm elections — a disaster for Obama.
“One of John’s main focuses is figuring out how they can have a focused program on using all aspects of the federal government and government agencies to get things done,” said former top Democratic staffer Steve Elmendorf. “He’s an incredibly experienced guy, and can also be a convener of the private sector to get them engaged in doing more.”
Last week, Obama announced a public-private manufacturing institute in North Carolina and announced pledges from universities and nonprofits to help low-income students. Former colleagues of Podesta said he sees value in presidential trips outside of Washington — especially when he can highlight concrete accomplishments, and do so in states where Democratic candidates have tough reelection fights.
“He understands the office of the presidency and the limits and opportunities of presidential authority perhaps better than any other living person,” said Loretta Ucelli, the White House director of communications when Podesta served as chief of staff.
White House allies also say that Podesta, along with a wave of other new hires to top White House positions, has injected new life into a staff exhausted by the battles of 2013.
“He has the ball-breaking skills of Rahm Emanuel and the policy chops that come with running [the Center for American Progress],” said one senior administration official. “That’s an insanely good combo for the White House.”
Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who met last week with Podesta and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, said the White House is “very anxious to have a strong year and to have a strong a second term as possible.”