Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Podesta

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:

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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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Podesta Can’t Right Obama’s Sinking Ship

You know a president is in deep trouble when even an improving economy can’t boost his popularity. That’s the situation facing Barack Obama, as optimism about a less anemic recovery in the coming year has done nothing to halt the slide in his approval numbers. With every poll showing him in deep trouble, it’s time for the White House to call in reinforcements and that’s what they’ve done by getting former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to return to the West Wing as a counselor. Podesta, a veteran liberal ideologue as well as a friend of current White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, is seen as bringing a steady hand to a political operation that has been shaken by a year of scandals and legislative failures that capped off with a spectacular fiasco in the form of the ObamaCare rollout and the revelation that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance was a lie.

The thought appears to be that if anyone can get the president back on track it is the guy who helped Clinton weather the Monica Lewinsky scandal and an impeachment trial. Moreover, Podesta’s presence in a position of influence will reinforce the sense that the president will use his second term to take a sharp turn even farther to the left than the agenda he has already pursued. But as much as McDonough needs all the grown-ups he can muster to deal with the unanswered questions about ObamaCare and countless other failures, large and small, no one should be expecting Podesta to be the cavalry who will ride to the president’s rescue. The problems that this awful fifth year of the Obama presidency exposed can’t be fixed by a stronger focus on liberal doctrine, more attacks on the Republicans, or even greater accountability on the part of White House staff, though the latter would certainly be a welcome development. But the problem with this administration isn’t process; it’s credibility. Once a president has lost it, no gathering of wise heads or political magicians can rescue the situation.

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You know a president is in deep trouble when even an improving economy can’t boost his popularity. That’s the situation facing Barack Obama, as optimism about a less anemic recovery in the coming year has done nothing to halt the slide in his approval numbers. With every poll showing him in deep trouble, it’s time for the White House to call in reinforcements and that’s what they’ve done by getting former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to return to the West Wing as a counselor. Podesta, a veteran liberal ideologue as well as a friend of current White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, is seen as bringing a steady hand to a political operation that has been shaken by a year of scandals and legislative failures that capped off with a spectacular fiasco in the form of the ObamaCare rollout and the revelation that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance was a lie.

The thought appears to be that if anyone can get the president back on track it is the guy who helped Clinton weather the Monica Lewinsky scandal and an impeachment trial. Moreover, Podesta’s presence in a position of influence will reinforce the sense that the president will use his second term to take a sharp turn even farther to the left than the agenda he has already pursued. But as much as McDonough needs all the grown-ups he can muster to deal with the unanswered questions about ObamaCare and countless other failures, large and small, no one should be expecting Podesta to be the cavalry who will ride to the president’s rescue. The problems that this awful fifth year of the Obama presidency exposed can’t be fixed by a stronger focus on liberal doctrine, more attacks on the Republicans, or even greater accountability on the part of White House staff, though the latter would certainly be a welcome development. But the problem with this administration isn’t process; it’s credibility. Once a president has lost it, no gathering of wise heads or political magicians can rescue the situation.

According to the New York Times, Podesta will have special responsibility for pushing climate change issues as well as in advising the president on implementing ObamaCare and administrative and organizational issues. But there’s little doubt that his presence in the White House has as much, if not more to do with the president’s need to regain the political initiative.

There’s no question that the amateur show that we’ve been watching this last year—in contrast to the brilliant and sharp-elbowed reelection campaign we saw the president conduct in 2012—is a good reason to bring in someone experienced in both handling scandals and keeping his head. Podesta’s presence is a sign that Obama will take a page out of the Clinton war room playbook and conduct a fierce partisan counter-attack on Republicans. That’s the sort of thing that has worked for this administration in the past, albeit with a good deal of help from those in the GOP with a desire for suicide charges in the form of things like the government shutdown. Podesta has a well-earned reputation as a bare-knuckled left-wing combatant and it is to be expected that his advice will err on the side of more confrontation rather than a genuine effort on the part of the White House to seek compromise with Republicans.

Podesta is a skilled tactician, but it is a mistake to think the president’s decline is a function of tactics or process. What we have seen in the last 12 months is a gradual dropping away of the sense on the part of most Americans that the president is a well-intentioned man whose word can be trusted. That cannot be fixed by more pushback against the opposition or by a pivot to the left to pursue liberal agenda items like income inequality. Nor is it helped when the president continues to deny that he lied about ObamaCare coverage or to dismiss genuine problems like the IRS scandal as merely the product of a right-wing conspiracy. If the president’s poll numbers now match those of George W. Bush at a similar point in his administration it is not because of bad advice but bad policy, and a lack of honesty about it.

Rather than conjuring up the sort of misdirection plays that enabled Clinton to stay one step ahead of his foes, what the president needs is more humility and honesty, not more political combat. That such a shift seems unimaginable tells us more about the White House’s problems than it does about how they can be fixed.

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The “System” Failed or the Liberals Did?

Evan Bayh’s departure is unmistakably rotten news for Democrats. As the Washington Post report puts it:

Bayh dealt a triple blow to his Democratic Party and to President Obama with his announcement Monday that he is sick of the partisanship in Washington and will not seek a third term. The decision put his seat — and, some forecasters said, possibly his party’s Senate majority — in jeopardy, sent a discomforting message to already demoralized Democrats about this year’s political climate and reminded voters that Obama has yet to usher in the post-partisan era, a major theme of his 2008 campaign.

But liberals can’t accept the underlying message — that Obama and the Democratic leadership have failed to govern and are chasing moderates out of the party. So the battle is on to make this about the “system” or “partisanship” — floating and amorphous defects untraceable to Obama or any particular Democratic leader. Then there are the Republicans — the Party of No. The Wall Street Journal‘s editors sum up the spin:

Democrats have responded by blaming “obstructionist” Republicans, who lack the votes to block anything by themselves; or a failure to communicate the right message, though President Obama is a master communicator; or even Madison’s framework of checks and balances, though this system has worked better than all others for some 225 years.

John Podesta, who ran Mr. Obama’s transition and heads the Center for American Progress that has supplied the Administration’s ideas, summed up the liberal-media mood last week when he told the Financial Times that American governance now “sucks.” If you can’t blame your own ideas, blame the system.

Ruth Marcus is a case in point, whining, “The Senate, with its endless holds and 60-vote points of order, may be the epitome of a place that knows neither victory nor defeat.” She talks to Bayh, who obliges with a generic slam on the system: “The way Congress is working right now, I decided I could make a better contribution to my state and country on a smaller stage. … There are some ideologues in the Senate. There are some staunch partisans. The vast majority are good, decent people who are trapped in a system that does not let that goodness and decency translate itself into legislative accomplishments.”

So no one is responsible, or everyone is. And it’s all a generic downer. But is this right? It seems that the essence of leadership — what Obama is supposed to be providing — is to forge an agenda, corral Congress, and get stuff done. All this smacks of Obama’s “It is hard” complaint about the Middle East. Well, yes, but he also isn’t up for the job, based on what we’ve seen.

And then there’s the substance of what Congress has been doing for the past year. It’s been pursuing a far-Left agenda in the face of polling and election returns showing that the public disapproves, and strongly so, of its course. Congress then hit the wall when Massachusetts sent Scott Brown to the Senate. So now it’s stymied — no idea what to do. Gridlock is proclaimed. Well, why not head for the Center, pass that bipartisan jobs bill and a limited list of health-care reforms? Oh, can’t do that, because Reid-Obama-Pelosi won’t allow it. This then is an error of overreach and inept leadership by three Democrats who can’t shed their ideological rigidity. The system hasn’t failed — liberal rule has been repudiated. There’s a difference.

But fine. If liberals admit failure and claim that the country is ungovernable, then voters can choose another set of lawmakers and another direction. It only works, you see, to claim that the system is a mess when you don’t control everything. Otherwise, it’s an admission of incompetence.

Evan Bayh’s departure is unmistakably rotten news for Democrats. As the Washington Post report puts it:

Bayh dealt a triple blow to his Democratic Party and to President Obama with his announcement Monday that he is sick of the partisanship in Washington and will not seek a third term. The decision put his seat — and, some forecasters said, possibly his party’s Senate majority — in jeopardy, sent a discomforting message to already demoralized Democrats about this year’s political climate and reminded voters that Obama has yet to usher in the post-partisan era, a major theme of his 2008 campaign.

But liberals can’t accept the underlying message — that Obama and the Democratic leadership have failed to govern and are chasing moderates out of the party. So the battle is on to make this about the “system” or “partisanship” — floating and amorphous defects untraceable to Obama or any particular Democratic leader. Then there are the Republicans — the Party of No. The Wall Street Journal‘s editors sum up the spin:

Democrats have responded by blaming “obstructionist” Republicans, who lack the votes to block anything by themselves; or a failure to communicate the right message, though President Obama is a master communicator; or even Madison’s framework of checks and balances, though this system has worked better than all others for some 225 years.

John Podesta, who ran Mr. Obama’s transition and heads the Center for American Progress that has supplied the Administration’s ideas, summed up the liberal-media mood last week when he told the Financial Times that American governance now “sucks.” If you can’t blame your own ideas, blame the system.

Ruth Marcus is a case in point, whining, “The Senate, with its endless holds and 60-vote points of order, may be the epitome of a place that knows neither victory nor defeat.” She talks to Bayh, who obliges with a generic slam on the system: “The way Congress is working right now, I decided I could make a better contribution to my state and country on a smaller stage. … There are some ideologues in the Senate. There are some staunch partisans. The vast majority are good, decent people who are trapped in a system that does not let that goodness and decency translate itself into legislative accomplishments.”

So no one is responsible, or everyone is. And it’s all a generic downer. But is this right? It seems that the essence of leadership — what Obama is supposed to be providing — is to forge an agenda, corral Congress, and get stuff done. All this smacks of Obama’s “It is hard” complaint about the Middle East. Well, yes, but he also isn’t up for the job, based on what we’ve seen.

And then there’s the substance of what Congress has been doing for the past year. It’s been pursuing a far-Left agenda in the face of polling and election returns showing that the public disapproves, and strongly so, of its course. Congress then hit the wall when Massachusetts sent Scott Brown to the Senate. So now it’s stymied — no idea what to do. Gridlock is proclaimed. Well, why not head for the Center, pass that bipartisan jobs bill and a limited list of health-care reforms? Oh, can’t do that, because Reid-Obama-Pelosi won’t allow it. This then is an error of overreach and inept leadership by three Democrats who can’t shed their ideological rigidity. The system hasn’t failed — liberal rule has been repudiated. There’s a difference.

But fine. If liberals admit failure and claim that the country is ungovernable, then voters can choose another set of lawmakers and another direction. It only works, you see, to claim that the system is a mess when you don’t control everything. Otherwise, it’s an admission of incompetence.

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