Barack Obama’s at the lowest point of his presidency. Can John Podesta save him?
By GLENN THRUSH
December 17, 2013
When President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, approached John Podesta a few weeks ago about taking over the high-aggravation job of White House counselor, the biggest concern wasn’t that he would say no. After all, he had already done so twice before. Obama’s team was more worried that Podesta would say no and that word of his rejection would leak, making the White House look feckless and desperate at the end of Obama’s brutal fifth year in office. So, the circle of people in the know was kept to a small handful; it was so closely held that even the perpetually plugged-in “Davids”—Obama confidants Axelrod and Plouffe—weren’t consulted.
That Obama’s team couldn’t afford to suffer even the minor embarrassment of a possible Podesta rebuff is a measure of just how precarious things have gotten less than a year after the president’s triumphant second inauguration—and how much the White House could use the services of Podesta, the closest thing Washington has to a turnaround specialist for wayward Democratic commanders in chief.
But despite the respectful coverage that greeted the news of Podesta’s appointment when the White House put it out last week, he will find that saving Obama is a mission easier undertaken than accomplished given the magnitude of the president’s problems—starkly illustrated by a Tuesday Washington Post-ABC News poll showing Obama’s approval rating at 43 percent, nine points below where he stood a year ago. Asking anyone, especially a man who hasn’t worked in the White House in more than a decade, to help rescue a presidency is a near-impossible task. But here was Obama’s team asking anyway, hoping Podesta will act as a catalyst to turn things around ahead of the 2014 midterms.
The next six months could be decisive: If the president can’t move past the Obamacare debacle to reset the agenda through executive action and targeted legislative campaigns on climate change, immigration and the minimum wage, he might never be able to regain his footing. The West Wing also hopes Podesta can help restore Obama’s slipping reputation as a president who can be trusted to run his own government competently. “You always come in with the perspective that the best way to do things is to be an outsider in Washington, but governing is something insiders do, and that’s what John does best,” says former White House press secretary Mike McCurry, who worked with Podesta when he was chief of staff in President Bill Clinton’s second term. “They needed him.”