Things to Read on the Evening of December 23, 2013
Morning Must-Read: Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: The Second Machine Age

John Podesta as Lamplighter in the Obama White House?: Monday Focus (December 23, 2013)

So the Fearless Leader of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, John Podesta, has departed for the Obama White House.

In the late 1990s John Podesta stabilized and made effective the nine-ring-circus that was the late-Clinton White House. In the 2000s he built the Center for American Progress into a politically-influential progressive think tank that outpunched the sum of Cato, AEI, Heritage, CEI, AAF, and five more Republican-oriented thinktanks (no, I went call them "conservative" until they do some shaping up and acquire some spine vis-a-vis their political masters) on one-twentieth the budget. Having accomplished two miracles of organization and institution-building and -management in little more than a decade, I thought his next project was going to be Equitable Growth: the WCEG--refocusing the public sphere's economic policy debate around what really matters, growth and equity, and playing our position so that, when the politics once again makes technocratic economic policy possible, we will be ready. But no.

Instead, Podesta is going to the White House as Counselor to the President.

Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot-Bang-Query.

Over at the Financial Times, the sharp-eyed and keen-witted Ed Luce tells us what he thinks is going on:

Ed Luce: The lights may soon turn on again in the White House:

Barack Obama has largely squandered the 12 months since he was re-elected. The second year of the president’s second term will be spent trying to clean up the mess....

Yet amid generally bleak expectations... last week offered two rare flickers of hope... a mini-budget deal... [and] Obama brought in John Podesta, the most seasoned Democratic operative in Washington, to help turn around his administration....

Podesta led... President [Clinton] through the torturous Monica Lewinsky impeachment hearings and to the relatively sunlit uplands beyond... with record budget surpluses, within touching distance of a Israel-Palestine deal, and a place in America’s heart. Not bad for a president who once had to plead for his relevance....

Obama too faces irrelevance at home unless he can alter the equation. In Mr Podesta, he has the consigliere he needs.... Obama badly needs to hear from seasoned operatives who can speak their minds.... His reputation is secure regardless of whether he can turn things around. Four years ago during a similarly low point in Mr Obama’s presidency, Mr Podesta attacked the president for having lost the “narrative” and falling back too often on big speeches. Mr Obama took a long time to digest that message. Mr Podesta’s appointment suggests he may be ready to hear it again....

Having helped fashion a string of small-bore initiatives for a weakened Mr Clinton, Mr Podesta emerged with a hunger for something grander. His two abiding causes are global warming and rising inequality.... Boehner... stood up to his Tea party colleagues.... Perhaps it will be the last time the speaker gets away with it. Or it could be the opening credits to The Moderates Strike Back....

A... concern is that Mr Podesta will be a temporary graft... no guarantee he will be part of Mr Obama’s inner sanctum.... nominally recruited by Denis McDonough... [the] chief of staff.... Obama is as brooding as Mr Podesta is blunt.

If the latter is to bring operational vision... and speak the home truths... he will need the explicit trust of his boss.... How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the bulb must really, really want to change.


Brad Plumer: John Podesta’s plan to bypass Congress on climate change:

Greg Sargent.... "With chances of major legislation on climate change all but dead given congressional opposition, Podesta will push for aggressive executive action, in addition to backstopping new Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy on controversial new emissions guidelines for power plants." (Podesta will, however, recuse himself from... Keystone XL).... So what might this "aggressive executive action" look like, exactly? Let's start by recalling that the Obama administration is already pursuing a number of steps to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change without the help of Congress... includ[ing]:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued standards that will make it virtually impossible to build any new coal-fired power plants that can't capture and store their own emissions....
  • The White House is hammering out an agreement with China and other countries to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)....
  • The administration is developing a plan to curtail methane emissions from natural-gas production.
  • The Energy Department is ratcheting up efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. The Interior Department will try to speed up wind and solar development on public lands.
  • Federal agencies have been ordered to get 20 percent of their electricity from solar, wind, and hydropower by 2020....

Back in 2010, after Republicans took back the House, Obama's agenda appeared moribund. So Podesta's Center for American Progress put out a policy paper (pdf) laying out a wide array of steps that the White House could take, on its own, to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. Some more advice, from the paper:

  • Even more EPA pollution rules... regulate various other pollutants from coal-fired power plants, from mercury pollution to coal ash waste....
  • A fee on oil imports: The paper noted that the president had the authority under the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 to "levy a fee on imported oil," provided that the secretary of commerce and secretary of defense "determine that continued high rates of oil imports threaten to impair national security."
  • Upgrade the federal vehicle fleet....
  • Upgrade urban buses. "Instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to implement Section 219 of the Clean Air Act, which requires bus fleets in metropolitan areas with more than 750,000 people (as of 1980) to have buses powered by 'lowpolluting fuel,' defined as 'methanol, ethanol, propane, or natural gas, or any comparably low-polluting fuel.'"
  • Promote clean energy within the military....

In his forward to the paper, Podesta insisted that the White House should use as much of its executive authority as possible. "The ability of President Obama to accomplish important change through these powers should not be underestimated," he wrote. "Congressional gridlock does not mean the federal government stands still."

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