SPIEGEL Interview with John Podesta Obama 'Has the Leverage and the Clout'
Former White House chief of staff and current political consultant John Podesta is betting on President Barack Obama's ability to overcome the gridlock in Congress. In an interview with SPIEGEL, he says the president's re-election is a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy to invest in the middle class.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Podesta, President Barack Obama's re-election was a hard-won victory. Will it be enough for a new start in Washington?
Podesta: He did better than even most Democrats expected him to do, but the country is still fairly evenly divided. The public clearly chose to stick with the program that he had put forward to the American people and rejected the platforms Governor Romney had suggested. I think that gives him important leverage.
SPIEGEL: Still, nearly 50 percent of the country voted against Obama, and the Republicans are still setting the tone in the House of Representatives.
Podesta: That is not a credible position any longer. After their clear election defeat, they will have to abandon it. What they were resistant to for the last two years was a budget framework going forward that required increased revenue, particularly increased taxes on people making above $250,000 a year.
SPIEGEL: Can Obama now push tax increases through Congress to pay for overdue investments in infrastructure and education?
Podesta: What he really ran on was refocusing the country on investing in the middle class, and that required higher taxes and fairer taxes on the wealthy. A majority of Americans and clearly a strong majority in the Electoral College voted for that. So I think he has the leverage and the clout to proceed with demanding that the Republicans accept that.
SPIEGEL: But first Obama must come to an agreement with the right on how to prevent America from falling over the "fiscal cliff," the package of automatic tax increases and radical budget cuts that will otherwise automatically come into play in January, likely pulling the country into a recession.
Podesta: The president is holding good cards when it comes to these negotiations. If the Republicans refuse a compromise, then the result will be to raise the taxes of all Americans. That leaves them standing as the party that accepted tax increases for millions of low-income workers in order to hang on to a few privileges for the super-rich. Not even their own people would understand that.
SPIEGEL: How are you preparing for negotiations?
Podesta: We are currently working on recommendations for tax reform and spending cuts -- in particular on trimming the costs of health care. There are a few positions that the president wants to insist upon, one of which is having the rich pay a fairer amount of taxes.
SPIEGEL: In his victory speech, Obama said he would extend his hand to the Republicans and work together with them. But that hasn't worked in the past.
Podesta: That was the situation before the election. But the Republicans got absolutely clobbered among minority groups like Latinos, African Americans and Asians. They lost college-educated women. I think the wiser heads and the more political people in the party are going to say: This guy has been re-elected, we have to find a way to work with him.
SPIEGEL: You sound surprisingly optimistic.
Podesta: That actually did happen in 1997, when I was former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff. After shutting the government down on several occasions, Congress under Newt Gingrich found a way to work with President Clinton after his re-election on a major budget agreement that we put in place in August 1997.
SPIEGEL: The Republican Party has changed significantly since then, with the radical Tea Party members setting the tone in Congress.
Podesta: I think they will know what is in their political best interest. But whether they feel like they have the room to move to a more moderate position remains to be seen.
SPIEGEL: Can Obama do anything to ease the situation?
Podesta: First he has to resolve the fiscal cliff. But after that, there are a few issues that both Democrats and Republicans could work on together -- such as immigration laws, which are very important to the Latino voters. On this point Romney was very backward-looking, even George W. Bush was more forward-leaning on the issue.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by this?
Podesta: The Republican Party has continued to play on the fears of people here today. Romney wanted illegal immigrants to "self-deport". That's one reason he lost. I think Obama's got some opportunity to find places to work with the Republican Party on education reform, for example, and on energy transformation moving the country toward a clean energy base.
SPIEGEL: Really? Many Republicans deny the existence of climate change. Obama also didn't discuss the issue during the campaign.
Podesta: I wish he had talked more about it. I think that Hurricane Sandy reinforces people's notion that we have a problem and makes climate change more salient. An indication of that was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's endorsement of Obama, when he said that he would be better than Romney on climate change.
SPIEGEL: How much time does a president have in his second term before he becomes a lame duck?
Podesta: It's not just about initiating reforms. The balance begins to shift away from trying to do major legislation and more towards consolidating what you already achieved -- like Obama's health care reform -- and using, as I say, your executive powers to implement and move the country forward. But you still have a lot of juice up until the next president gets sworn in on Jan. 20, 2017.
SPIEGEL: Can Obama open the path for a Democratic successor?
Podesta: It's very hard to predict what will happen four years from now. Who knows what will happen with China, with the euro crisis or with the Iranian nuclear program. And you can't be fully certain that the Republicans will continue to drive their party to the right. In some ways, though, I think the most difficult challenges on the economic front for Obama are past him. He's got some running room now. That's why any Democratic candidate for 2016 could be in a good position.
SPIEGEL: And then Hillary Clinton, who will soon be stepping down from her position as secretary of state, will step in?
Podesta: She's been an incredible asset to Obama and she's done a great job in the State Department. She also has the advantage that the most valuable player in this campaign was Bill Clinton. He framed the choice in his convention speech better than anybody had done, then he was tireless on the campaign trail.
SPIEGEL: By campaigning for Barack Obama, Bill Clinton may have been helping his wife in the next election. Would you agree?
Podesta: I know him well. Bill Clinton gets up every day, thinking about what politics is going to do for ordinary people in this country. He saw this as a critical turning point, where if we went back with Romney to the policies of the Bush administration, it was going to be disastrous. People like to psychoanalyze how much of this is calculating. But his calculation was simply that the American people needed to stay on the track that Obama had laid out.
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz