Former Adviser John Podesta 'Obama Needs to Project the Strong Power He Has'
Part 2: 'Obama Already Has a Lot of Authority'
SPIEGEL: Why is it so hard for the Democrats to get their act together? The majorities, in a way, are there. But we are seeing a lot of infighting within the Democratic Party.
Podesta: Obama represents the mainstream of the Democratic Party; there are outliers on both the left and the center-right. And the US process is one of persuasion rather than a parliamentary discipline that comes in a European system. He has got to convince the members of Congress. They're independent actors. They run for election and reelection on their own.
SPIEGEL: What are some of the lessons Obama could draw from the Clinton years? He could face a drubbing in the midterm elections similar to the one Bill Clinton experienced in 1994.
Podesta: He will lose seats but not Congress. However, my advice for him is: Work all the levers of your power. Don't just view your job as working with Capitol Hill to pass legislation. There are 2 million people who work for the president of the United States. Look at clean energy: It needs legislation, but Obama already has a lot of authority to do things that he could be doing. And I think that's what Clinton did. He did it when he had Democrats in power. He did it when we had Republicans in power.
SPIEGEL: Could the lessons include firing staff at the White House? There is much talk right now about the divide between pragmatists, such as his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who want to get things done and idealists, such as chief strategist David Axelrod, who would like to preserve the message of change.
Podesta: We can agree on one thing: The White House staff is overexposed. I don't think we need any more profiles of any more staff people. I don't think that helps the president, and I think they know that as well. I think the president still has confidence in his team. I would be surprised if, at this moment, he shook the staff up in a substantial way.
SPIEGEL: But is there a real divide at the White House between idealists and pragmatists?
Podesta: There are people like Rahm Emanuel, who -- by style, by temperament, by experience -- is focused on getting things done. Some of the other people who campaigned with the president are encouraging him more to not compromise on the things that he ran on. But, ultimately, these are the president's decisions.
SPIEGEL: Many Americans feel that Washington is "broken." They see standstill in institutions like the Senate. Does the US need to have a debate about the American political system?
Podesta: What we now have is essentially a parliamentary system in which every vote is a vote of no confidence, with no majority rule. That's not a prescription for good governance. It is the result of use and misuse of the filibuster, the instrument to stop any debate with 41 votes in the Senate. (Editor's note: For debate on a measure before the US Senate to be closed, thereby allowing a vote on it to take place, three-fifths of the senators -- usually 60 of 100 senators -- need to call for the debate to be closed. If the minority party has 41 or more senators, it can delay or prevent a vote by extending the debate indefinitely in a so-called filibuster.)
SPIEGEL: That hasn't always been the case.
Podesta: I spent the earlier part of my career working in the Senate and, at that time, filibusters were rare. They were used for issues that senators felt were really aimed at fundamental constitutional principles -- like civil rights. They happened, but when people actually filibustered, they stayed in the Senate around the clock and debated.
SPIEGEL: Now senators simply announce their intention to file for a filibuster, which is often enough of a threat to block legislation.
Podesta: That's why it is now used on virtually everything that comes to the floor of the Senate, including even the ability to confirm people to serve in public office. Nominees for key positions in government are being held up with threats of filibusters, and I think that is dysfunctional. In the middle of the financial crisis, Obama could not appoint the leading civil servants in the Treasury Department for more than a year because of such opposition.
SPIEGEL: Has the partisanship in Washington gotten worse since the Clinton years?
Podesta: It's worse today than it was then. We were able to get some things done with bipartisan support.
SPIEGEL: Why is that?
Podesta: Because of the redistricting of our constituencies, the most partisan representatives now tend to occupy large chunks of districts, particularly in the House of Representatives. Another factor is the "permanent campaign" most parliamentarians need to engage in now. The influence of money is also to blame, as well as the polarization of the media. The Americans in the middle are desperately looking for somebody to fix the system. They have shifted back and forth in recent elections because they're so frustrated with the incapacity of government in Washington.
- Part 1: 'Obama Needs to Project the Strong Power He Has'
- Part 2: 'Obama Already Has a Lot of Authority'
- Part 3: 'There's Too Much Money in Politics'