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Can He Really Salvage a Distracted White House?

The Return of Podesta

by ALAN FARAGO

The Washington Post opines that the return to the White House of John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton administration,  who have been disappointed by the absence of focus in the Obama White House. Maybe.

The Clinton White House was a laggard on the environment. Senior staffers — Podesta, for example — were inclined to push signal aspects of federal environmental policies (ie. assertion of federal authority to protect the nation’s air and water quality) to the lowest rungs of the priority list. Today, former president Bill Clinton talks about the importance of addressing climate change with the best, but when he had the chance as a president, he did very little.

Podesta’s service in the White House was capped by the passage of NAFTA — an international trade agreement that sped the hollowing-out of the nation’s industrial centers, leading to profound economic imbalances that have only grown in the intervening decades. Passage of NAFTA required tremendous political skills, but one wonders how Podesta looks back on the results, now, and the extent to which those results changed him.

As founder of the Center for American Progress, Podesta has been a strong, impressive leader. The Center is providing a muscular response and push back against conservative foundations that helped to fill legislatures across the land with right wing extremists and anti-environmental policies.

If the Post is right — and if being a forceful voice for the environment is a purpose of Obama’s inclusion of Podesta in the White House inner circle — the first indication would be for Podesta to address the weakness in Obama’s (and Clinton’s earlier) environmental strategy.  That would be to pay closer attention to political appointees who run environmental agencies at the sub-cabinet level — mandating stronger leadership — and re-invigorate regional staff of agencies by replacing the survivalist culture that especially prevails in places like Florida.

“Visionaries” at the top of federal environmental agencies — the media routinely cites former Floridian Carol Browner, for example — are more often than not figureheads for immobile and often immoveable bureaucracies. The reason is that within federal environmental agencies the highest level of management are staffed by “survivalists”. These senior managers are not valued by initiative but rather by skill sets that ensure safety when political winds are howling.

This phenomenon substantially hobbled environmental policies and implementation. Surely Podesta understands how the revolving door between the regulated and regulators has eroded environmental protections, and how anti-government, right-wing extremists have chipped away at environmental protections at exactly the time and in the decades they have been most needed.

The nation needs a strong broom to clean out the cobwebs in moribund environmental agencies and executive ranks in the regions staffed by survivalists. Obama is a distracted president. Whether John Podesta can “make things happen”, especially in the face of a predictable and brutish push-back from the extremist GOP, is an open question.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades.