John Podesta, a leader of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, was the Clinton administration official who worked to douse scandals, outmaneuver Republicans and keep Bill Clinton popular even through impeachment. He’s now in charge of a 450-person staff whose experts — including Podesta himself — aren’t always in sync with those of his new boss.
Podesta has proposed a different way to pay for universal health care than Obama — even though they both support a huge expansion of coverage. Both men say they also favor a transparent, open government that protects civil rights and liberties, but have different ways to get there.
Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff who ran the liberal Center for American Progress, acknowledged some differences.
"Before joining the transition, I ran a think tank and have obviously put forward a number of ideas for tackling our nation’s most critical problems," Podesta told The Associated Press in a statement. "But I am here to help implement President-elect Obama’s agenda, not my own."
Podesta is the best known among Obama’s three transition leaders. The others are Pete Rouse, who worked on Capitol Hill more than 30 years and was Obama’s chief of staff in the Senate, and Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the president-elect and campaign adviser.
Podesta has thrived on pressure many others wouldn’t stand, handling the scandals of the Clinton White House. But since leaving government, he has been writing and speaking on the same issues that Obama will face when he takes office: the economy, global warming, health care, education, the Iraq war.
Podesta, 59, accepted the job as Clinton’s chief of staff just before the president’s impeachment trial began. Clinton not only survived but, with Podesta’s help, maintained high approval ratings. Podesta also handled controversial firings at the White House travel office, and questions about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s profits from commodity trading and the family’s controversial investment in property known as Whitewater.
"He doesn’t need a favor," said Podesta’s brother Tony, one of the top lobbyists in Washington. "Obama picked him because he’ll give it to you straight. He knows a lot about policy and politics, and knows all the people you might pick to run the government."
Obama campaigned against lobbyists’ influence but Podesta saw lobbyists as valuable assets because of their government experience. In his first news conference, Podesta announced that lobbyists could join the transition team if they signed a strict ethics code. They must avoid working in any field in which they lobbied in the last year. They also must pledge not to lobby the Obama administration on the same matters they focused on during the transition for a year after leaving Obama’s service.
Podesta’s willingness to operate under pressure doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly. Podesta said President Clinton personally lied to him about Clinton’s sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Podesta repeated the falsehoods, and found himself in the embarrassing position of trying to find Lewinsky a job outside the White House.
Podesta’s account of Hillary Clinton as an observer in the firing of White House travel staff members was contradicted by a draft memorandum by a Clinton aide that surfaced in 1996. The memo said the then-first lady was the central figure in the dismissals.
In a book, articles and speeches, Podesta has proposed paying for universal health care with a value-added tax, a levy on the value of a good or service. He also has proposed that Americans who don’t enroll in a health insurance plan should pay a charge that would be tied to their income and the care they would need.
Obama would require that large employers not offering meaningful coverage — or failing to make a meaningful contribution to the cost or quality of care — must contribute a percentage of payroll toward the cost of the national plan. Small businesses would be exempt.
Podesta has extensive proposals to reduce government secrecy. His plans would discourage overclassifying information, establish a presumption under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act in favor of disclosure, and propose a law directing courts to weigh the costs and benefits of disclosure.
In 2006, during a news conference with Sen. Joseph Biden — now the vice president-elect — Podesta cited President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war to make a point about presidential appointees who give their boss bad advice.
"I think at some point the people serving this president are disserving him," Podesta said. "And at some point, they have to come to grips with that."