In appointing John Podesta, President Obama has uncharacteristically… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
WASHINGTON — With his popularity flagging and his healthcare law at risk, President Obama has uncharacteristically reached outside his tightknit core of advisors to bring into the White House a veteran Democratic strategist who helped guide President Clinton through the darkest days of his presidency.
The appointment of John Podesta, who was the White House chief of staff during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment proceedings in Congress, is an acknowledgment by Obama of the extent of the problems that have dogged the first year of his second term.
The decision is not risk-free. Bringing in an outsider at such a high level could complicate lines of authority in the administration. Podesta has previously served as a boss and mentor to Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But the decision could also quiet the clamor from the president's allies on Capitol Hill to replace advisors responsible for the flawed rollout of the healthcare law. The problems with the law have threatened to mire the presidency and pull other Democrats down as the party seeks to hold its Senate majority in next year's midterm election.
"There is time to retrieve a strong legacy for the president and his administration," said Leon E. Panetta, who served as Clinton's second White House chief of staff and as Obama's CIA director and Defense secretary.
"To do that, they've got to get back on track with the issues that would make up that legacy," he added. "They need someone who can guide them through these rough waters, as John obviously did at one of the most difficult of times."
Beyond the internal dynamics of the White House, the decision to bring in Podesta as counselor has clear implications for the president's policies.
Since Obama's first term, Podesta has criticized the White House for focusing too heavily on legislation -- often with little return -- and not paying enough attention to the ability of the president and his Cabinet officials to change policy through executive action. Obama has already appeared to be moving to make greater use of his executive powers, but Podesta's arrival could accelerate that shift.
A key arena for that approach is likely to be climate change. Podesta has strongly backed action to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. He has also expressed considerable skepticism about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is designed to carry oil extracted from Canada's tar sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast. His appointment drew cheers from environmental activists who have fretted over Obama's ambivalent statements on the pipeline's future.
Late Tuesday, White House officials said Podesta would recuse himself from the Keystone issue because of his involvement in outside activities opposing the pipeline.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund manager from California who has been a leading campaigner against the pipeline, has worked with Podesta on climate issues and called him "an outstanding advocate for our environment" who has "championed clean energy solutions."
Officials familiar with the decision say McDonough asked Podesta to take on the role of guiding implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Podesta's agreement with McDonough is that he'll stay for a year, starting about the end of December, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Carney said Podesta would work on a range of issues besides healthcare, including climate change, economic growth and "executive actions, where necessary when we can't get cooperation out of Congress."
Podesta's appointment comes as the White House enjoys its first sustained period of relatively good news after weeks of battering. The HealthCare.gov website has functioned reasonably well since an emergency team of tech experts overhauled it in November. A preliminary deal to restrain Iran's nuclear program, although controversial, has given administration officials a glimpse of a possible foreign policy success, and unemployment fell to 7% last week, the lowest level since before Obama took office.
The latest polling indicates that Obama's sharp slide in the public's eyes may have stopped. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday showed his job approval rating ticking upward after months of steady decline.
Comparisons to the Clinton era have appeared often lately amid Obama's difficulties. For Clinton, the economic prosperity of the 1990s ultimately was enough to overshadow a multitude of problems.
White House officials hope the same will happen for Obama, if unemployment continues to drop and the health insurance marketplaces become more popular. In that hopeful scenario for Democrats, Podesta could help Obama manage a turnaround robust enough to help imperiled Senate Democrats win reelection.
Republicans said Obama had a lot to overcome. "He's facing an enormous trust deficit," GOP strategist Kevin Madden said. "There's a giant credibility gap right now. Maybe John can help repair that."