WASHINGTON — With his popularity flagging and his healthcare law at risk, President Obama has uncharacteristically reached outside his tightknit core of advisors to bring into the White House a veteran Democratic strategist who helped guide President Clinton through the darkest days of his presidency.
The appointment of John Podesta, who was the White House chief of staff during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment proceedings in Congress, is an acknowledgment by Obama of the extent of the problems that have dogged the first year of his second term.
The decision is not risk-free. Bringing in an outsider at such a high level could complicate lines of authority in the administration. Podesta has previously served as a boss and mentor to Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But the decision could also quiet the clamor from the president’s allies on Capitol Hill to replace advisors responsible for the flawed rollout of the healthcare law. The problems with the law have threatened to mire the presidency and pull other Democrats down as the party seeks to hold its Senate majority in next year’s midterm election.
“There is time to retrieve a strong legacy for the president and his administration,” said Leon E. Panetta, who served as Clinton’s second White House chief of staff and as Obama’s CIA director and Defense secretary.
“To do that, they’ve got to get back on track with the issues that would make up that legacy,” he added. “They need someone who can guide them through these rough waters, as John obviously did at one of the most difficult of times.”
Beyond the internal dynamics of the White House, the decision to bring in Podesta as counselor has clear implications for the president’s policies.
Since Obama’s first term, Podesta has criticized the White House for focusing too heavily on legislation — often with little return — and not paying enough attention to the ability of the president and his Cabinet officials to change policy through executive action. Obama has already appeared to be moving to make greater use of his executive powers, but Podesta’s arrival could accelerate that shift.
A key arena for that approach is likely to be climate change. Podesta has strongly backed action to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. He has also expressed considerable skepticism about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is designed to carry oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast. His appointment drew cheers from environmental activists who have fretted over Obama’s ambivalent statements on the pipeline’s future.
Late Tuesday, White House officials said Podesta would recuse himself from the Keystone issue because of his involvement in outside activities opposing the pipeline.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund manager from California who has been a leading campaigner against the pipeline, has worked with Podesta on climate issues and called him “an outstanding advocate for our environment” who has “championed clean energy solutions.”
Officials familiar with the decision say McDonough asked Podesta to take on the role of guiding implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Podesta’s agreement with McDonough is that he’ll stay for a year, starting about the end of December, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Carney said Podesta would work on a range of issues besides healthcare, including climate change, economic growth and “executive actions, where necessary when we can’t get cooperation out of Congress.”
Podesta’s appointment comes as the White House enjoys its first sustained period of relatively good news after weeks of battering. The HealthCare.gov website has functioned reasonably well since an emergency team of tech experts overhauled it in November. A preliminary deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, although controversial, has given administration officials a glimpse of a possible foreign policy success, and unemployment fell to 7% last week, the lowest level since before Obama took office.
The latest polling indicates that Obama’s sharp slide in the public’s eyes may have stopped. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday showed his job approval rating ticking upward after months of steady decline.
Comparisons to the Clinton era have appeared often lately amid Obama’s difficulties. For Clinton, the economic prosperity of the 1990s ultimately was enough to overshadow a multitude of problems.
White House officials hope the same will happen for Obama, if unemployment continues to drop and the health insurance marketplaces become more popular. In that hopeful scenario for Democrats, Podesta could help Obama manage a turnaround robust enough to help imperiled Senate Democrats win reelection.
Republicans said Obama had a lot to overcome. “He’s facing an enormous trust deficit,” GOP strategist Kevin Madden said. “There’s a giant credibility gap right now. Maybe John can help repair that.”
Other Republicans question whether one steady hand can right the ship. Personnel changes at this point are like “shifting the chairs around on the Titanic,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Podesta, 64, a wiry, plain-spoken Chicago native, has an expansive policy background and a long-held belief that Democrats can manage government in a way that advances progressive ideals.
Unlike most in the president’s inner circle, Podesta has a national stature that is not tied to Obama. In addition to his role as White House chief of staff, he is a former National Security Council member and founder of the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal policy research and advocacy group.
Podesta doesn’t mince words in his advocacy, even to spare the president whose election he supported. As the administration neared a deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” this time last year, Podesta pushed Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to hold out for a better deal that netted more revenue. He has been critical of Obama’s secrecy about the drone program and National Security Agency practices.
During the Clinton years, when officials emphasized the importance of memos by marking them “top secret,” he would scrawl the word “embarrassing” on the top in green marker, recalled a former colleague.
“John is an extremely straight shooter,” said Neera Tanden, president of the center Podesta founded and a former Obama administration official. “It’s a good thing for the president to expand his circle to include someone like him, who is going to be honest and frank.”
White House aides downplayed the possibility of tension with McDonough, saying he had advocated hiring Podesta, who had brought him on as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and had unofficially advised him during his years at the White House.
His addition to the staff also adds a senior presence to the White House at a time when Obama is anticipating the departure of longtime advisor Pete Rouse, who was formerly the acting chief of staff.
Also this week, McDonough recruited Phil Schiliro, the White House’s former top liaison to Congress, to return to Washington. Schiliro, a longtime aide to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), helped Obama pass the healthcare law in 2010 and will now seek to smooth the law’s implementation.
Michael A. Memoli and Evan Halper in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.