03/31/2010 05:42 PM

Former Adviser John Podesta

'Obama Needs to Project the Strong Power He Has'

John Podesta, 61, was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and headed Barack Obama's transition team. He talks to SPIEGEL about Obama's health care reform, the new president's track record during his first year in office and what's plaguing the American political system.

SPIEGEL: Barack Obama has finally managed to push his health care bill through Congress. But can it still be considered a success after the endless debates? Some Democrats are afraid of a disaster at the midterm elections in November because many Americans are skeptical about the reform proposal.

John Podesta: It will cover more than 30 million people with health insurance. We're spending more than 17 percent of our GDP on providing health care, and yet we don't have health outcomes that are anywhere near commensurate with that, particularly compared to European systems. So it is definitely a success.

SPIEGEL: The final bill, however, is very different from Obama's initial proposals. Cost-cutting in the health care sector is no longer a priority, and more competition for the insurance companies won't be introduced.

Podesta: It is certainly better for the Democrats to get something done even if this involved compromises. They have been fighting for better health care coverage for decades, and this bill is a very significant step. Let's also remember that some of the effects of this bill will be immediate. Right now, young people just entering the job market have the highest rate of unemployment. That means they don't have health insurance. Because of this bill, their families will be able to include them on their policies. The president and members of Congress will be heading out and explaining the benefits and I think the more people hear and understand about the bill, the more they will see how remarkable it is.

SPIEGEL: Not a single Republican sees it that way, though. It's a stark contrast to big social reforms in the 1960s, such as Medicare or Medicaid.

Podesta: I don't think you can say that the president did not try as hard as he could to engage Republicans -- and let's remember that the final legislation had over 200 Republican amendments included. But, at the end of the day, the Republicans were unwilling to help, and he was not going to let them prevent him from fulfilling his commitment. There is no doubt that the Republicans will campaign against the bill but, in doing so, they risk becoming simply the party of no.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't that predictable, though? As Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, you know how contentious health care debates can get -- and how fierce Republican resistance can be.

Podesta: Obama was trying to at least reach out to Republicans. But they pulled back again. That surprised him.

SPIEGEL: Many people have a different theory. This president is still popular personally, they argue, but members of Congress don't seem to be willing to follow him.

Podesta: I think that's natural. I saw similar things when I worked for President Clinton. President Bush had success with his party when he was asking them to do easy things. If you walk up to Capitol Hill and say "Please cut everyone's taxes," they'll be very happy to oblige you.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that Obama was too detached in the health care reform process?

Podesta: Quite the contrary: He got too entwined in these negotiations. So the story was all about the sausage-making and not about what he was trying to deliver and how it fit in with the other things he was trying to get done. The public lost a sense of what the big story was. He stopped making the case to the country about how his different reform elements fit together.

SPIEGEL: So he was more of a prime minister than a president?

Podesta: He has got to stop being the prime minister. Obama needs to project the strong power he has as the US president and use his cabinet more effectively.

SPIEGEL: Was it a mistake for Obama to go for the "Big Bang," to try several big reforms simultaneously in his first year?

Podesta: No. The analysis he proceeded from was that unless you could get these strong foundations by attending to the things that needed reform in the US economy, you couldn't have strong sustainable growth. What perhaps surprised the people in the White House was how long the health care debate took and how little real support there was from the Republican Party.

'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.

'There's Too Much Money in Politics'

SPIEGEL: New groupings, such as the Tea Party movement, thrive on that. They are against big government above all else. Right after the financial crisis, government seemed to be more popular in the US. A Newsweek cover read: "We Are All Socialists Now." That feeling has evaporated quickly. Why?

Podesta: I don't think the American public was ever in favor of a kind of social democracy on a Scandinavian scale. What surprises and disappoints me was that the failure of markets and the failure to regulate the financial system have not been internalized by the public. They don't seem to have realized that the counterpoint to the greed and excess that those markets produced is a strong government.

SPIEGEL: Has that been internalized by the White House? We can see the massive influence of money in Washington. How willing is Obama to attack the system?

Podesta: Obama has been willing to attack it. But his message gets confused because, even in attacking the system, you have to create a basic level of financial stability, so that the whole economy doesn't go over the cliff. The public saw that all the bailout money went to the very firms that created the mess. It confused them. But the question is: Did we have a different option?

SPIEGEL: Many Americans, though, feel bitter that money also buys access in Washington. Well-connected industry groups shower politicians in Washington with billions of dollars each year.

Podesta: We've been after this for 30 years, and it just gets worse and worse. Obama put in very strong ethical provisions to try to push out the influence of lobbyists. But, today, on health care, on financial regulatory reform, the lobbying business is still a growth business.

SPIEGEL: How would you discuss that with your own brother Tony, who runs a very successful lobbying firm here in Washington?

Podesta: He does what he does. I think there's too much money in politics -- and the influence of lobbyists -- and this need for raising tremendous amounts of money through special interests in order to run campaigns -- is corrosive.

SPIEGEL: Let's look at foreign policy. Many observers say Obama has been even less effective on the global stage than at home.

Podesta: I disagree. He established quite a good record, particularly for a first-year president. He took a difficult decision in Afghanistan. He kept support for that amongst his NATO allies. He got the Pakistani government more aligned to go after certain elements of al-Qaida and the Taliban in Pakistan and used drones in the region efficiently to hunt down terrorists. The pressure to increase sanctions on Iran is an ongoing process, but it's still one that he's played intelligently.

SPIEGEL: But there is a lack of any progress in crucial areas like the Middle East.

Podesta: True. Obama's effort there has not produced anything that looks like it's got a coherent, end-game, positive result associated with it.

SPIEGEL: And he has no genuine friends among global leaders in spite of his popularity abroad. He does not seem to care about building close relationships.

Podesta: His style is certainly different from George W. Bush, who wanted to be liked and really developed deep personal relationships. But if you have the wrong foreign policy and good personal relations, you end up with bad results. And if you have the right foreign policy, a strong team to implement it, and thinner personal relations, you're more likely to have very good results.

SPIEGEL: Europeans were also dismayed that Obama did not push for more progress on climate change at last December's summit in Copenhagen.

Podesta: I'm a glass half-full guy when it comes to climate change.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Podesta: The dialogue running up to Copenhagen, particularly on the European side, was sort of unrealistic. It didn't align by largely working off the fulcrum of Kyoto. The Copenhagen framework aligned the global system and led to the emergence of sort of basic negotiation means. It will allow the big developing countries to participate in a clean energy reduction strategy. You did have substantial commitments made by China, by India, by Brazil, by Indonesia in advance of Copenhagen. They're on board.

SPIEGEL: But the US, with its huge emissions output, still needs to lead.

Podesta: Global progress depends on the United States' continuing to make progress on reducing its emissions. That ultimately requires legislation to pass the Senate.

SPIEGEL: That means a change to the famous American way of life. In the current political environment, is it possible to ask Americans to make sacrifices? The numbers supporting climate change legislation are dropping.

Podesta: That's not true. The numbers who think that climate change is a top priority problem and even the numbers who think that climate change is caused by human activity are dropping. But the support for strong intervention to change the way we consume and use energy and move to a clean energy future hasn't changed. You use the word "sacrifice." I use the word "opportunity."

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz


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