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Why Obama Chose Podesta

The potential impact of President Obama’s decision to bring veteran Democratic figure John Podesta on board to save his floundering presidency continues to be debated, and is the subject of a Glenn Thrush analysis today. But Thrush’s article seems to have fallen victim to the reportorial success of its author, with Thrush having been able to get such a juicy quote out of Podesta that the quote itself has overshadowed the rest of the story.

That’s too bad, because the more important element of the story is not Podesta’s quote, though that’s worth mentioning as well: “[Obama and his team] need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” Podesta told Thrush, comparing the GOP and the large segment of the American public that elected them to the cult movement that ended in infamous mass suicide.

There’s not much surprising about the quote. Now that the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has all but disappeared, unhinged rhetoric and uncontrolled temper tantrums characterize much of the left’s discourse. And the modern Democratic Party has an unhealthy fascination with murder fantasy, from their political ads depicting legislators throwing people off a cliff to their columnists’ attachment to effigy executions. What’s important about the quote is not its morbid conclusion but the first half of it, which is the subject of Thrush’s article:

This is not just about providing added muscle to a beleaguered and undermanned West Wing staff. According to interviews in recent weeks with an array of Obama insiders and a dozen current and former senior aides, Podesta’s hire is explicitly meant to shake things up inside the White House. In effect, I was told, it represents the clearest sign to date of the administration’s interest in shifting the paradigm of Obama’s presidency through the forceful, unapologetic and occasionally provocative application of White House power. Podesta, whose official mandate includes enforcement of numerous executive orders on emissions and the environment, suggested as much when he spoke with me earlier this fall about Obama’s team. “They need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” he told me.

“I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution. They are focused on that now,” Podesta added. “They have to realize that the president has broad authority, that he’s not just the prime minister. He can drive a whole range of action. They always grasped that on foreign policy and in the national security area. Now they are doing it on the domestic side.”

The confirmation that Obama wants a divisive partisan steering his second-term agenda isn’t exactly breaking news, and neither is the fact that he wants to ignore Congress and continue amassing power in the executive branch. But it’s significant precisely because it isn’t surprising. None of this would constitute a change of course for Obama, but a change of course can often be a productive way for a president to salvage a second term from the challenge of lame-duck status and diminishing political capital.

Obama is often compared to the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and this should be no different. Even before Clinton’s second term really fell apart, he understood the growing influence of the House Republican caucus and the public appetite for some of the right’s policy preferences. When Clinton needed to replace Leon Panetta as his chief of staff, he did not give the job to Panetta’s deputy, Harold Ickes, but instead brought in Erskine Bowles.

The Baltimore Sun reported on a January 1997 one-day retreat in which Clinton stressed bipartisanship and working with congressional Republicans on balancing the budget. Though these were general administration priorities, the Sun noted that the event “very much had the stamp of new Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles.” His organizational skills and ability to work with Republicans were going to be key in getting the president’s second-term agenda off the ground. The Sun added:

Top Cabinet officials suggested that a good relationship with Congress isn’t as difficult as it sounds and that it essentially entails being willing to compromise with Republicans on tax and spending cuts while delivering a budget that is in balance by the year 2002.

The Democrats have certainly come a long way from those days of compromise and fiscal responsibility. Those are not priorities for Obama-era Democrats, but more than that, the Obama administration doesn’t believe it needs to compromise with congressional Republicans because the president doesn’t recognize their authority.

The Sun had noted that Clinton was more open to compromise with Republicans after his reelection because he didn’t “need Republicans as a foil anymore.” But for Obama, the campaign never ends, so the need for a foil is always there. Because the campaign never ends, serious governing–as opposed to executive power grabs and bureaucratic rulemaking–never begins. The perfect candidate for this job, the president believes, is John Podesta. And Podesta seems to agree.



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