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White House Hires A Crisis Manager, Easing Democratic Worries

John Podesta was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, helping the president survive impeachment.
Chip Somodevilla
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John Podesta was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, helping the president survive impeachment.

It's not big enough to be called a shakeup, but the new hire announced this week at the White House is important: John Podesta will come on board in January as a counselor to the president.

Podesta is a Democratic wise man, the founder of the Center for American Progress, a policy and personnel incubator for Democratic administrations, and he just started a new think tank on income inequality — the problem President Obama says will animate his second term.

Podesta is also a second-term crisis management specialist. He was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, helping him survive impeachment.

His hiring has already soothed some jangled nerves among the current president's supporters in Washington.

"I thought, 'Fantastic,' " says Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's former press secretary. She is one of a small, inside-the-beltway group of Democrats who have been desperate for reassurance that the recently unsteady Obama White House was getting its act together.

With the Podesta announcement, the White House appears to have sent that message.

"I think they've known for a while that they need to reach out, they need to broaden their circle a little," Myers says. "The president has been famously reluctant to do that. So how do you widen the lens? One of the ways you do that is you reach out and you bring in new people, and it's very helpful to bring in people who come preloaded with tremendous experience."

A Fan Of Executive Powers

Podesta is not a completely new face in the Obama camp. He ran the president-elect's widely praised transition team in 2008 and 2009, and he's been advising the White House from the outside.

For some time he's been telling the Obama team that as legislative action becomes increasingly less likely, it should focus more on using the president's executive powers. Podesta told NPR in January that Obama has plenty of authority under the Constitution to change and implement policy.

"I think that he's got a lot of cards to play, and I think he can be extremely successful," he said.

The White House has taken Podesta's advice — often to the frustration of Congress. With Podesta inside the administration, the president will probably do even more.

"The execution of government does make a difference," said Podesta in another NPR interview. "It sounds incremental, but in the end of the day, putting those points on the board will make a difference in terms of what the growth rate is, what the unemployment rate is."

GOP: Podesta Can't Change What's Already Broken

Execution of government is a Podesta focus — and lately it's been an embarassing weakness for the Obama administration.

Not surprisingly, Republicans dismissed the latest personnel move as a distraction, pointing to a series of troubles — from Syria to NSA eavesdropping and, above all, to the health care rollout — that have hurt the president's ratings on credibility and competence.

"I won't give the president advice on his own staff," says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, "but the problem here is the substance of his No. 1 issue. The issue he wanted to be most associated with is a failure, and no amount of shifting the chairs around on the Titanic is going to solve that problem."

Podesta can't erase the fact that the health care website didn't work or that the president made a promise that he now says ended up being inaccurate. But Democrat Steve Elmendorff says that Podesta can help — a lot.

"Nobody can make up for where they are," says Elmendorff, who was senior advisor to former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt. "The president's admitted they've made some mistakes. The staff has admitted they made some mistakes, and they need to fix it. And what John can do is provide direction and a fresh set of eyes and ears on how to move forward and do the right thing."

Podesta and the White House have a lot on their plate for the new year. They've got to get the health care law working; they need to figure out how to help Democrats get through the 2014 elections with the least amount of damage; and then, starting with the president's State of the Union speech early next year, they need to map out the final chapter of the Obama presidency.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.