The Democratic strategist whom President Obama has summoned to right a flailing White House also poses an optics challenge for an administration that has gone to great pains to distance itself from lobbying and influence makers.
John Podesta, who served as President Clinton’s chief of staff, is the consummate Washington insider whose efforts to influence policy over the years includes starting a liberal think tank and political action group and helping form his brother Tony’s lobbying powerhouse.
Though Mr. Podesta hasn’t officially registered as a lobbyist since 2006, his efforts to sway public policy are prodigious. For several years, he has co-hosted the clean energy industry’s premier event in Las Vegas, alongside Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that is designed to jawbone policymakers and encourage the fossil fuel industries to embrace a clean energy agenda.
Mr. Podesta, 64, routinely walks the halls of Congress, making the case for his favorite liberal issues. He also has used the Center for American Progress think tank he formed as a platform to bring Democratic policymakers together to shape a progressive agenda in Washington.
His opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast has been so loud, in fact, that the White House has announced that its newest policy adviser to the president will recuse himself from the final decision on whether to approve the project.
Mr. Podesta is respected for his command of policy and the ways of Washington, and is well-liked on both sides of the aisle. (In fact, he teaches a Georgetown University law class each spring with federal Judge Richard Leon, a conservative who advised Dick Cheney during the Iran-Contra hearings.) He also won kudos a decade ago for helping to stabilize the Clinton White House after the president’s impeachment scandal.
But in many respects, Mr. Podesta still resembles the type of lobbying-connected insider that Mr. Obama claimed during his first run for president would be restrained from access to the White House. Mr. Podesta’s brother, Tony, runs a prominent D.C. lobbying firm. The two brothers founded the Podesta Group in 1987, but a representative said John Podesta hasn’t been associated with the firm since 1993, when he left to work in the Clinton White House.
Still John Podesta remains close to his brother, so much so that a recent Federal Election Commission donation record mistakenly listed him as a vice president of his brother’s firm.
Tony Podesta’s firm has experienced a business boom since Mr. Obama took office. According to information from the Center for Responsive Politics, the firm’s income went from more than $10 million in 2007 to almost $30 million by 2010. This year, revenue is estimated to be around $20 million.
The Podesta Group is retained by some top businesses and industries that have a lot to gain from favorable government policy, including BP PLC, Wal-Mart, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The Obama administration has been skirting the thin line between advising and lobbying, despite the president’s promise to keep lobbyists out of the White House.
“I’m in this race to tell the lobbyists in Washington that their days of setting the agenda are over,” Mr. Obama said at a 2007 campaign event in Nevada. “They will not work in my White House.”
Upon taking office, Mr. Obama signed an executive order forbidding lobbyists from working in the executive branch and restructuring revolving-door and gift policies. It took watchdogs less than three months to cry foul.
The fact-checking website Politifact.com said the administration has made extensive use of waivers allowing former lobbyists to serve.
“The waivers are granted by the Obama administration itself, and are little more than the administration saying a former lobbyist is OK,” the website said. “For a candidate who pledged to conduct business out in the open, there is little transparency about when a waiver is required.”
But Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she doesn’t have a problem with Mr. Podesta coming aboard the White House.
“While he certainly has close ties with his brother, Tony Podesta, he seems to have a pretty separate life,” she said. “John has a career dedicated to public service, so moving into the administration when it’s been fumbling and he’s been known for his competence makes sense.”
The White House did not return calls for comment. They did announce that Mr. Podesta would not be advising the president on the Keystone pipeline, but not because of any concerns about lobbying. Mr. Podesta has publicly stated his opposition to the project and decided that only impartial people should advise the president, said Joshua Earnest, a White House spokesman.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said that regardless of who joins the White House, no one can fix the administration.
“The issue [Obama] wanted to be most associated with is a failure, and no amount of shifting the chairs around on the Titanic is going to solve that problem,” Mr. McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
Mr. Podesta has been an unofficial adviser to the president for some time, Ms. Sloan said.
According to visitor logs posted by the White House, Mr. Podesta has visited the executive mansion almost 130 times since 2009, though there could be a second individual named ‘John Podesta’ who also visited.
Mr. Podesta has long been a staunch Democratic supporter. After leaving the Clinton White House, he founded the Center for American Progress in 2003, a prominent liberal think tank.
It was there where he dabbled in lobbying himself, working for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a sister organization. Mr. Podesta was last listed on government records as a lobbyist in 2006.
He also has donated some of his own money to the cause, giving about $10,000 to Democratic candidates over the past four years.
• Phillip Swarts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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