WASHINGTON (AP) — John Podesta built his reputation as a Democratic Party wise man by trying to salvage the second terms of two presidents. He’s about to duck out of the White House to try to engineer the election of a third.
Podesta served as Bill Clinton’s final White House chief of staff in the 1990s and is closing out a yearlong stint as counselor to President Barack Obama. After departing the White House later this week, his next act will be steering Hillary Rodham Clinton’s expected 2016 campaign for president.
For months, Podesta has balanced his allegiance to both Obama and Clinton, former presidential rivals turned allies.
While shepherding the president’s climate change agenda and shaping his strategy for dealing with a Republican-led Congress, Podesta has also been involved in nearly every key conversation with Clinton on campaign hires and her nascent organization, as well as the timing of a formal announcement of her candidacy.
The unusual arrangement underscores the 66-year-old Podesta’s status as something of a Democratic senior statesman – “someone who knows how to navigate the waters in Washington in a way very few do,” said Maria Cardona, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign.
In a statement to The Associated Press, former President Clinton called Podesta “always on the level, straightforward with allies, adversaries and fence-sitters alike, and he never forgets the impact policy decisions have on real people.”
Podesta declined to be interviewed for this story, and spokesman for Hillary Clinton also would not comment on his prospective role in her 2016 campaign. But several people close to her operation spoke about Podesta on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized by Clinton’s team to do so publicly on the record.
A wiry Chicagoan with a quirky, sometimes dark, sense of humor, Podesta accepted the post in Obama’s White House on the condition that he would only stay for one year. White House officials said it wasn’t clear at the time that Podesta intended to work for Clinton when he left.
“What John does on his personal time is not my matter,” said Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff who repeatedly tried to lure Podesta back to the West Wing before finally succeeding in late 2013.
For Obama and Clinton, affiliating with Podesta – a sharp political tactician and progressive policy wonk – is a way to signal to critics and wary supporters they are willing to recalibrate and learn from past mistakes.
Obama brought on Podesta after the disastrous rollout of his health care law, a deeply challenging stretch that sparked questions about his competence and that of his tight-knit inner circle. Several current and former White House officials said Podesta quickly injected more depth into strategy discussions and would often play devil’s advocate, pushing the team to consider things not on their radar.
Podesta also ingratiated himself with Obama’s team, particularly younger aides. An avid cook – his specialty is Italian, including risotto and biscotti – he would invite staffers to his home in Northwest Washington for celebratory dinners after finishing big projects. He and McDonough also developed a friendly rivalry in running races, with the chief of staff finally beating Podesta, 20 years McDonough’s senior, late last year.
For Clinton, bringing on Podesta is widely viewed as an effort to avoid the disorganization and backbiting that plagued her 2008 bid. Though Podesta’s title is expected this time to be something akin to campaign chairman, he is expected to have a hand in day-to-day operations and is seen as one of the few staff members who can be candid with both Hillary and Bill Clinton.
“He’ll be the one who can say, you really did this right, however on this, you’ve got to change – and won’t be afraid to do that,” said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who was Podesta’s boss on Capitol Hill during the 1980s.
The exact kind of episode Podesta is being brought on to help avoid erupted Monday, as a clash between pro-Clinton fundraising groups became public when Clinton backer David Brock abruptly resigned from the board of Priorities USA Action, a super PAC. Hours later, Brock said he was willing to reconsider his resignation, but the incident nonetheless rekindled speculation about whether Clinton can keep internal rivalries at bay.
Podesta, a married father of three, first crossed paths with the Clintons more than 40 years ago, when he and Bill Clinton worked on a 1970 Senate campaign in Connecticut. They stayed in touch as Clinton became Arkansas governor, and Podesta worked in Congress and started a lucrative lobbying firm with his brother, Tony.
Podesta left the firm to join Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, then followed him to the White House. It was Podesta who was tasked with navigating the Clintons through the numerous investigations, personal embarrassments and Clinton’s impeachment hearing – experiences that deepened the couple’s trust in him.
After Republicans regained control of the White House in 2000, Podesta set to work carving out a home for liberal policy in the capital. With the help of donations from wealthy Democrats such as George Soros and Steve Bing, Podesta created the Center for American Progress, which grew into an influential think tank with deep ties to the Obama White House – in part because so many members of the White House staff have worked at the center at some point during their career.
After leaving the White House later this month, Podesta plans to continue teaching a class at Georgetown University on congressional investigations until Clinton’s campaign offices opens in New York later this spring or summer.
While Obama is known to be aggressive in seeking to retain staffers contemplating departures, sometimes even making in-person appeals to their spouses, White House officials say Podesta has been spared that hard-sell.
The only message for Podesta, McDonough said, was that he wanted to “get him as long as I could.”
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.
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