Podesta seeks points for Obama's scoreboard before it's too late

Getty Images

White House senior adviser John Podesta is running against the clock.

Time is winding on Podesta’s objective, which is to make sure President Obama put points on the board in the final three years of his second term through either legislation or executive action.

ADVERTISEMENT
With Obama and the White House flailing in late 2013, Podesta returned to the West Wing in January as part of an Obama reboot.

A little more than three months later, the former chief of staff for President Clinton gets good marks from Democrats and fellow West Wingers for helping to improve the White House’s strategy and communications.

They say Podesta has improved the White House’s chances of moving meaningful regulatory actions through the government while better coordinating with Democrats in Congress.

“Lawmakers feel more engaged now,” said one former senior administration official, who called Podesta a “hell of a supplement” to the White House legislative affairs office.

A senior Democratic aide who had grumbled about relations with the White House in previous months, said it has been “a lot better than before” under Podesta.

Podesta has been tasked by Obama to oversee a 90-day review of big data and privacy on the heels of the National Security Agency controversy.  The review continues to take up a chunk of his time as the deadline approaches in the coming days. 

He also has been labeled what one senior administration official called “the implementer-in-chief” of Obama’s climate and natural resource plan, tackling specifically how the administration can use executive action to set climate policy.

Colleagues say Podesta takes a very hands-on approach at the White House.

As part of his “implementer-in-chief” task, each Wednesday morning, Podesta gathers a group of senior policy heads from environmental agencies around a table at the White House to discuss what they’re each accomplishing and how they get to the finish line.  

“What he’s really aware of, because he played a similar role back then, he understands the game clock,” said Mike Boots, the acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “He knows that we have three more years and a set of things that the president has committed to doing.”

The opportunity for Obama to affect change on his own is dwindling.

For all the White House emphasis on a “year of action,” time is ticking on the administration’s effort to roll out substantial new regulations.

And there’s been little hope of moving forward on any action with Congress. The White House, congressional Republicans and Senate Democrats have all been more focused this year on political messaging ahead of the midterm election.

That’s put even more importance on the administration’s regulatory work, which doesn’t require congressional approval.

Republicans say nothing has really changed under Podesta.

“On all of the issues he was recruited to help with, we’ve seen more of the same from the White House,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “They’re still being squeezed from both sides, without progress on Keystone and environmental issues, and a healthcare law that, while improved in terms of numbers is far from fixed.”

Kukowski said that while the White House has relied upon executive actions under Podesta, “has it really made a difference in righting the White House?”

The White House disagrees with the partisan assessment.

Officials say Podesta is an active participant in strategy discussions along with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.

Both try to see different angles to every program and are “loathe a default to conventional wisdom,” one official said.

“John will challenge us to look at a problem we have been wrestling with from a new angle and that pushes us to use fresher thinking,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director who worked with Podesta at the Center for American Progress.

Podesta is a “quirky guy,” Palmieri acknowledged, “and not all [his] ideas are good ones” but she said, “he challenges us all to think more creatively and that makes everyone better.” 

Recently, at the end of staff meetings, senior officials say Podesta has taken to offering “life reflections.”

Palmieri explained that it’s “usually a colorful observation on the absurdity of political problems White Houses face in mid-term years.”

The reflections “leave us all in better spirits and keeps us focused on the long-term,” said Palmieri, who refused to offer an example.

In his previous White House life, Podesta was known to lose his cool at times, and earned a reputation for having two-personalities. The one prone to outbursts of fury was nicknamed “Skippy.”  

“Skippy” has “indeed made a couple of appearances in the past month or so,” said Palmieri.

But she argued that the outbursts have helped challenge White House thinking while keeping staff on their toes.

Environmentalists saw a glimpse of Podesta’s gruff side after they wrote Obama a letter asking him to refuse the exporting of natural gas to other countries. 

“If you oppose all fossil fuels and you want to turn fossil fuels off tomorrow, that’s a completely impractical way to move toward a clean-energy future,” Podesta told reporters at a climate briefing, according to the Wall Street Journal.