The news that longtime D.C. Democratic hand John Podesta will be joining the White House senior staff early next year swept through political Washington on Monday night, waking up what had been a somewhat sleepy start to December so far.
The most obvious question that the addition of Podesta raises is why President Obama did it -- and why he did it now. But, before we get into that, it's important to make clear why he didn't do it: To change public opinion about his presidency. While Podesta is a well-known name within Washington (and in Democratic activist circles -- more on that below) average Americans have no idea who he is. And, with Christmas coming and snow/ice storms battering much of the country, the idea that adding a senior staffer to the White House mix will move the needle in Obama's favor is a fallacy. Regular people don't care about staff moves. At all.
Obama and his inner circle know that fact. So, if adding Podesta wasn't done to try to perk up Obama's faltering poll numbers, why was it done? Here are four reasons:
1. The Rouse hole. Pete Rouse, a counselor to the president, has been rumored to be leaving for some time. A Rouse departure would leave a major hole in the Obama inner circle, given that Rouse goes back all the way to the Senate with Obama. That is a hole that not many people in Washington could fill. Podesta, who ran Obama's presidential transition and served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is one of the few who could.
2. Addition by addition. Obama loathes the D.C. chattering class -- especially when it craves a sacrifice for the failings of an administration. That's why it's hard to see him jettisoning Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as a reaction to the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov. But, Obama didn't get where he is by ignoring the power that the chattering class has to influence political debate in this country. Adding Podesta, someone most of the D.C. political world knows, allows Obama to say, "See, I get it. I know things aren't perfect, and I am working to make them better." All without firing any senior-level people.
3. Dealing with Congress is a dead end. This past year was, in theory, the one where Obama might have hoped to parlay his 2012 reelection into a series of policy wins in Congress. That, of course, didn't happen. And, Obama knows well that if he couldn't get anything done with Congress in 2013, any hope to move major legislation through the divided Capitol in a midterm election year is an absolute nonstarter. How then does he accomplish (or come close to accomplishing) his goals? By executive order and working through the various agencies within the administration to go around Congress. Enter Podesta. "Concentrating on executive powers presents a real opportunity for the Obama administration to turn its focus away from a divided Congress and the unappetizing process of making legislative sausage," he wrote in a Center for American Progress paper in 2010 entitled, "The Power of the President: Recommendations to Advance Progressive Change." Look for Podesta to assert the role of the executive, particularly on climate issues.
4. The left matters for the legacy. A lot. President Obama's speech in Washington last week -- focused heavily on economic inequality and the power of government to address it -- was a clear signal that he recognizes the power and importance of the ideological left to his legacy-building. "The speech — coming at the end of a difficult and politically damaging year — was designed to help define a populist argument that he and other Democrats can carry into upcoming legislative battles and into next year’s midterm elections," wrote the Post's Zach Goldfarb about Obama's address. Adding Podesta is another piece to that puzzle. Remember that Podesta started the Center for Equitable Growth, a think tank dedicated to studying economic inequality, a few weeks back, and has been a prominent voice on how to bridge the gap between haves and have-nots for years. Putting Podesta in his senior staff is both a sign of how committed Obama is to trying to change the policy and political dynamics surrounding economic inequality, as well as a recognition that to do so he will need the liberal left strongly behind him.