WASHINGTON (AP) — Longtime Washington insider John Podesta is developing a bit of a specialty for the presidents he's served — second-term problem solver.
Podesta was the last chief of staff in the Clinton White House and has been helping shake President Barack Obama's West Wing out of its doldrums after a bruising 2013.
"We're in a big game, the clock is ticking on the game, and I want as many great players with us on the field as we can muster," said White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, who persuaded Podesta to come on board as senior counselor in the waning days of a discouraging 2013.
Just a year after triumphantly winning re-election, Obama had been hammered by the disastrous rollout of the health care website, a partial government shutdown and an inability to get any major legislative priority passed by Congress. Podesta's one-year assignment gives him enough time to try to turn things around before the November midterm elections.
Podesta has an open door to the Oval Office to take his opinions directly to Obama, a privilege reserved for a small circle of senior advisers. The two men share Chicago roots, and Obama chose Podesta to handle his transition to the presidency after his 2008 election. Podesta's return to Obama's fold comes after a brain drain in which some of the president's most trusted longtime strategists left in the year following his re-election.
Podesta initially was described as specializing in implementation of the troubled health care law, along with White House organization and climate change. But his hand is being felt more broadly in a quickened pace in the West Wing, a push for presidential executive action and a focus on the big picture, including a long-range outlook on where politics may interfere with Obama's goals.
Podesta's other duties include overseeing a review of data privacy and running interference for Democratic members of Congress up for re-election this year. He organized a meeting Obama had with Western governors on Monday to talk about the extreme weather they've been experiencing, with the goal of building support for the president's climate change plan.
Obama announced a sweeping plan to address global warming last summer, but prospects for legislation are nil given congressional opposition. Yet Podesta is creating new urgency on the issue among Obama's staff. Podesta, known to joke that Friday is only two working days until Monday, summoned about two dozen White House advisers to the office one Saturday this month to develop a yearlong "battle plan" to approach climate politics.
Podesta pushed the team, including environmental policy experts and senior presidential aides overseeing politics and communications, to discuss preparations for regulations on greenhouse gases coming this summer and the impact the current weather extremes could have on the climate debate.
A week later Obama visited a California farm, where melons couldn't grow in a field that had dried up from drought. Obama, standing on the fallow ground, gravely predicted, "A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods are potentially going to be costlier, and they're going to be harsher."
Podesta has a passion for tackling climate change going back to his Clinton days and made it a major policy focus at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank he founded in 2003. Podesta has fought the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to bring oil from Canada across the United States, so the White House said he won't advise the president on whether to approve the project.
The White House declined to make Podesta available for an interview.
McDonough said he wanted Podesta back at the White House because of his record of steering President Bill Clinton's agenda with executive action, particularly to expand the economy. Podesta also helped Clinton survive an impeachment vote and managed budget battles with a Congress that was controlled by Republicans in both chambers.
"We were eager to get John in terms of the specific experience he had on making a White House in the context of a hostile Congress function well in terms of creating opportunity," McDonough said in an interview from his West Wing office.
At the Center for American Progress, Podesta wrote a paper arguing that Obama should become a more activist president, concentrating his executive power to surmount the grind of getting legislation through a divided Congress. It suggested 43 pages of administrative actions Obama could take on the environment, economy, health care, education, foreign policy and other areas.
Podesta argued that Obama should use the powers he's been embracing with gusto in recent weeks, including executive orders and public-private partnerships. Podesta suggested Obama disregard predictions of legislative stalemate and embrace "an opportunity to demonstrate strength, resolve and a capacity to get things done."
Podesta has criticized the president at times, including calling for more transparency on drone strikes and the appointment of a commission to investigate surveillance in the wake of revelations of email and mass telephone data collection by the National Security Agency. Just a few weeks after Podesta came back to the White House, Obama tasked himself with overseeing an internal review of big data privacy concerns.
Podesta's criticisms of the president were no barrier to having him join Obama's team, McDonough said.
"It's not only OK, it's needed," he said. "The president knows we don't have a corner on the wisdom market here."
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