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The Shadow President

Resource type: News

The New Republic |

How John Podesta invented the Obama administration.

by Michael Crowley

The bright young think tank staffers at the progressive Center for American Progress (CAP) admire their boss, John Podesta. Podesta, who is also co-managing Barack Obama’s presidential transition team, possesses energy (he is a workaholic and marathon runner), colorful quirks (a UFO buff, he has pressed for more government disclosure about reported alien sightings), and an unabashed willingness to dance himself into a sweaty frenzy at a party filled with people half his age (59). But the staffers also fear his darker side. They fear … Skippy.

Skippy is the name–coined during Podesta’s years as a top Clinton White House staffer–for Podesta’s evil alter ego. Skippy is cutting, acerbic, impatient, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Skippy will gladly tell you when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. And so, before arriving at a meeting to brief Podesta on some issue of importance, CAP staffers will nervously confer with one another. “I really want to avoid Skippy tomorrow,” they might say, checking to make sure their presentations are solid enough to avoid provoking Podesta’s anger.

If that sounds like a tough work environment, it’s also just what Democrats need. For years, the party has specialized in chaotic and self-destructive internal feuding that was partly responsible for the rise of the Bush Republicans. The Iraq disaster and the thrill of the Obama campaign have created the temporary appearance of unity. But the question is whether that will last once Democrats begin governing.

If CAP is any indication, chances are that discipline will prevail. And no one has been more influential in creating that new ethos of single-minded purpose than John Podesta and his whip-wielding pal, Skippy. In the past five years, Podesta has turned his think tank into a combination of highly efficient liberal war room and Democratic administration-in-waiting. That feat, along with his crucial role running the Obama transition, has made Podesta arguably the second-most important figure in his party. And, while Podesta announced this week that he won’t leave CAP to join Obama’s White House team, in many ways the Obama presidency will reflect his influence in the years ahead.

When the elevator doors open on CAP’s tenth floor office at 1333 H Street in Northwest Washington, a couple of blocks from the White House, a visitor is greeted with a scene more befitting a slick Madison Avenue advertising firm than a liberal think tank. Hanging above a main reception desk is a pair of giant flat-screen televisions that alternate between cable news and looping video of CAP events on issues from global warming to the war in Afghanistan. The decor is sleek and modern–a far cry from dark wood and ugly upholstery, or the dreary good-enough-for-government aesthetic you might find at, say, the Brookings Institution. Instead, the walls and doors are made of clear glass, affording an immediate view, on one side, into office spaces for a team of communications aides and bloggers for the center’s website. On the other side is a glass-enclosed event room with seating for several dozen that has hosted policy addresses by everyone from Joe Biden to Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling, who recently promoted CAP-sponsored work on atrocities in Uganda. The walls throughout the center’s offices, which house a staff of 100, are adorned with edgy modern art and photography.

This sleek, more-L.A.-than-D.C. aesthetic–possible thanks to an annual budget of $26 million–is a testament to CAP’s place as the crown jewel of a revitalized Washington progressive infrastructure. When Podesta founded CAP five years ago, with funding from a handful of big liberal donors like George Soros and Peter Lewis, the D.C. Democratic establishment was a mess–disorganized and too distracted by the long-running feud between its liberal and moderate wings to focus efficiently on winning back power. After Republicans consolidated power in the 2002 midterm elections and marched the country toward war in Iraq, big party donors and operatives decided it was time to rise above the bickering and score-settling and just build a new apparatus. As Podesta told The New York Times in late 2003, “I’m trying to be ecumenical on the center-left thing. When you’ve got such a radical direction of the country on the right, that’s where our fight should be, and not with each other. ” (Determined to run a quiet pre-transition, Podesta declined to speak on the record for this article.)

Podesta was a natural choice for Democrats looking to pull their party together. Throughout his 40 years in Democratic Party politics, Podesta, who is lean with an angular face, has maintained a cautiously low profile. “I’m into the cult of non-personality,” he once told The Washington Post. Raised in a blue-collar Catholic household in Chicago, the grandson of Greek and Italian immigrants first cut his teeth in 1968 as a 19-year-old field organizer for Eugene McCarthy. After graduating from Georgetown law school, Podesta worked as a top aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then honed his killer instincts as Michael Dukakis’s chief opposition researcher in 1988. In 1993, he began the first of two stints on Bill Clinton’s White House staff; during the second one, first as deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff, he was Clinton’s point man in managing the Monica Lewinsky scandal and congressional impeachment.

In the Clinton White House, Podesta perfected an ability to impose discipline on potentially meandering gatherings of contentious Democrats. Neera Tanden, a former CAP staffer and former Hillary Clinton policy adviser who has worked closely with Podesta for years, recalls a meeting with Democratic officials in which one began to monopolize the conversation. “I’m not going to let you hijack this meeting,” Podesta barked. Afterward, a prominent Democratic governor who had been present expressed envy, telling Tanden: “I wish I could run meetings like John Podesta.”

Even sharper than his managerial skills was his partisan instinct. Former Clinton White House lawyer Lanny Davis recalls a divide within the White House over its response to congressional Republican hearings on the 1996 Clinton campaign’s fundraising practices. Clinton’s top White House lawyers wanted to mount a substantive defense, but Podesta joined with Davis to insist that the hearings be treated as trashy political theater. That became the official White House line, one that the press largely adopted, effectively castrating the hearings.

During the Bush years, Podesta has maintained that sense of aggressive partisanship–but in the service of an agenda more liberal than Clinton’s was during the ’90s. Indeed, Podesta is the rare Democrat with a strong personal connection to the moderate Clinton wing of the party who also has clear sympathies with the Pelosi-style left wing.

To that end, Podesta stocked CAP with leading lights from across the Democratic ideological spectrum, from a centrist Clintonite like economics guru Gene Sperling to Daniel Weiss, a liberal environmentalist formerly of the Sierra Club, providing them with both gainful employment and a public platform as they waited out their party’s years in exile.

In its vision for a Democratic agenda, Podesta has steered CAP past the center-left fight. Under Podesta, CAP succeeded in promoting a liberal agenda under a more serious establishment imprimatur than, say, Daily Kos–and making that agenda the mainstream party position. (The political climate made things easier, to be sure: The disastrous radicalism of the GOP, especially on foreign policy, in some ways vindicated and certainly empowered the party’s liberal wing.) Take two of the most important issues of the 2008 presidential campaign. On Iraq, CAP first unveiled a “strategic redeployment” plan in September 2005– calling for a 16-month withdrawal of most U.S. troops, with a relocation of some to Afghanistan–back when many congressional Democrats, including Obama, were still cautioning against a hasty exit. Now CAP’s position is essentially Obama’s. On health care, CAP began pushing a universal health care plan well before the 2008 presidential race began–commissioning polls, staging local town hall events, and, most importantly, devising a substantive proposal that became the model for ones eventually released by Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama.

But Podesta may have pulled off the only trick tougher than uniting his party’s fractious wings: maintaining CAP’s influence in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s unexpected primary defeat. Podesta is extremely close to Clinton, after all, and, upon its founding, CAP was widely perceived as a vehicle for a Clinton administration-in-waiting. But Podesta also told Clinton at the campaign’s outset that his CAP responsibilities required CAP to be outwardly neutral, and, as Obama gathered steam in late 2007 and early 2008, he never discouraged the numerous staffers who became open Obama partisans. He also did not predictably take the Clinton side in other intra-party battles. Precious few Clintonites, for instance, had faith in Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy,” which called for spreading party resources into red states in hopes of widening the Democratic playing field. Dean and former Clinton White House strategist Rahm Emanuel had bitter fights over the plan during the 2006 midterm campaign. But Podesta not only defended Dean, he personally urged him to press on and ignore the naysayers.

Podesta’s careful maneuvering (not to mention his strong ties with Obama’s inner circle–including his former boss and current top Obama adviser Tom Daschle, plus former Clinton lawyer and current Obama foreign policy adviser Greg Craig) enabled him to stay on good terms with Obama partisans. “Not too many other [Hillary supporters] would fit that description,” says former Hillary Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.

But, even if Team Obama had wanted to snub CAP, it is a testament to Podesta’s mighty machine that there is really no other alternative. For one thing, Obama’s own campaign drew heavily from CAP’s staff and expertise. Brian Katulis, an expert on Iraq and national security, worked closely with Obama’s foreign policy coordinator Denis McDonough, who himself was on leave from CAP to work with the campaign. After the primaries, the chief of CAP’s policy team, Melody Barnes, left to work for Obama. And Obama friend and policy wonk Cassandra Butts, a CAP executive, advised him throughout the campaign.

As countless irrelevant think-tankers around town can tell you, policy isn’t much use if it’s not effectively promoted. Podesta’s team has particularly excelled at turning substance into partisan advantage–thanks to an aggressive press team which books the center’s experts on cable gab shows and a feisty crew of bloggers. To take just one example: In July, an analysis of McCain’s health care plan by three CAP policy aides, James Kvaal, Peter Harbage, and Ben Furnas, suggested that the plan might lead to cuts in Medicare and Medicaid (Kvaal is an occasional contributor to The New Republic). The publicity surrounding their report led a Wall Street Journal reporter to extract a foolishly candid concession from McCain’s domestic policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, that such a thing was possible. The Obama campaign quickly made the point into one of its most widely aired attack ads.

CAP’s reputation for sharp discipline and ideological comity made Podesta the natural choice for Obama as he looked for someone to corral and vet the Democratic establishment in preparation for his presidency. Moreover, Podesta runs a tight ship–another key to smothering rancor is ensuring that people aren’t freelancing in the newspapers via anonymous quotes. Hence the Obama transition has thus far been about as leak-free as one might hope for. Indeed, even some CAP staffers interested in administration jobs have found Podesta opaque about their prospects. (Meanwhile, every non-connected Democrat in town is scrambling to figure out a line to Podesta’s desk. “People are getting freaked out,” says one Washington lawyer hoping for a plum White House staff job.)

Although Podesta’s own name often appears on lists of potential Obama White House aides, few at CAP expect him to leave the organization he has spent years cultivating. They hope CAP will carry on with him–even if it’s sure to lose much of its top talent of the Obama team–most likely in a supportive role under an Obama presidency. But, while Podesta has succeeded in providing Washington’s fractious crunchy liberals with an ethos of corporate discipline and efficiency, the question is whether that strict unity should define liberal Washington under an Obama administration. “One thing they’re going to have to be very careful about here is, are you a think tank of the Obama administration or are you a progressive think tank?” says Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, upon which CAP was in part modeled. “Are you going to have the cojones to say, ‘This is wrong, you shouldn’t do that?’ The temptation is always to go along.”

Unity and discipline is certainly a must for those in opposition and trying to fight their way back into power, as Democrats were for most of this decade. But these qualities can also be dangerous in a ruling party. The Bush administration demonstrated what could happen when one party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress, brooking little dissent or ideological self-criticism. No one would wish for a repeat of the endless infighting and political reinventions of the Clinton administration. But the cult of discipline can also staunch the healthy tensions that produce intellectual rigor and new ideas. It remains to be seen whether Podesta, and the administration he is helping to shape, will acknowledge that. Maybe it’s time for Skippy to take a vacation.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Copyright © 2007 The New Republic. All rights reserved.

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