I knew Bill Clinton’s White House and — to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen – the current White House is NOT Bill Clinton’s White House. Indeed, the White House to which John Podesta returns as the newest announced counselor to President Obama is a VERY different White House than the one he left as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff in January of 2001. He faces the management/strategy challenge of not applying yesterday’s techniques to today’s (and tomorrow’s) problems.
First, this is a VERY different President. Bill Clinton lived (and lives!) for politics. He was consumed with it, perhaps obsessively. He actively engaged in the minutiae of government, both policy and management. Above all, he liked the people in politics and reveled in his relationships with them. None of that could be said of President Obama.
Second, Podesta – considered one of the more able Washington operatives – comes to work for a President, Obama, who has a LOT less “good will in the bank to draw on” than Podesta’s former boss, President Clinton, had.
“Politico” headlined this week “Obama disapproval hits high.” Reporting on a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, “Politico” notes that, today
“54% of Americans disapprove of the president’s job performance, compared with 42% who say he is doing a good job.”
And, the story reports, “The disapproval is the highest figure NBC/WSJ has found since Obama took office.”
Compared with President Obama’s negative 42-54 job approval rating today (a net negative 12 points), when President Clinton entered the sixth year of his presidency in January, 1998, his job approval rating was 59-32 (a positive 27 points . . . a “delta” of 39 points between the ratings of the two Presidents).
When Podesta joined the Clinton administration as Deputy Chief of Staff in January, 1997, President Clinton’s approval rating was 58-35. When Podesta became Chief of Staff in October, 1998, it was 63-34. When President Clinton left office in January, 2001, it was 66-29.
It is inescapable that Podesta had a LOT more to work with 15 years ago.
But even then, a Democrat President was no stranger to a Republican congress. In 1998, the Senate was Republican 55-45 and the House in the hands of the GOP 221-211.
On the other hand, the Clinton administration had LOST their bid for comprehensive healthcare reform. Not having to implement and defend a masive “ClintonCare” may be the best thing to have happened to Clinton’s reputation.
While expectations have to be moderated, Podesta knows how the game is played. This White House could use that. Whether he can modify the “game plan” and whether they’ve got the “field position,” “bench strength” or “time on the clock” remains to be seen.
He comes with strong industry-alarming views in the energy and environment sectors. His opposition to the Keystone Pipeline has already caused him to announce he’ll recuse himself from any related decisions (but his views – on the issue and hiring new personnel – will hardly be ignored). His joining an administration positioned in a “Politico” headline this morning as “President Obama turns left” has to concern the business community further. Podesta, of course, also comes to the job with business ties, described in this morning’s NEW YORK TIMES as including a pro-solar contribution to his “think tank” from San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric and a donation from “pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly . . . just as the debate heated up in Washington over potential cuts to the Medicare program that covers Lilly’s most profitable drugs.”
Agree with him or not, Podesta has to be commended for leaving the private sector to return to a very tough job that is truly “public service.”