John Podesta: Reflecting on the Art of Leadership in a Divided Washington

You don’t have to look far these days to see that many Americans are skeptical of our political leaders, and even our political system writ large. 

Despite our wariness, however, many of us remain eager to participate constructively in the political process, or even run for office. Yet the path to getting involved in politics can be difficult to navigate, or even find. 

In this episode, John Podesta – former chief of staff to President Clinton, counselor to President Obama and chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – reflects on the lessons he’s learned about effective leadership over 50 years of service, the joys and rewards of engaging in the political process and the young politicians he sees as the potential leaders of tomorrow. 

ABOUT JOHN PODESTA: John Podesta has been a major player in American politics for nearly fifty years, eventually serving as White House chief of staff to President Clinton, and later, counselor to President Obama. Podesta also chaired Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016. He is the founder of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. 

Podcast Transcript

Eric Jaffe: We make decisions every day. While some of them are small, many can have a huge impact on our own lives and those around us. But how often do we stop to think about how we make decisions? Welcome to Deciding Factors, a podcast from GLG. I’m your host, Eric Jaffe. In each episode, I’ll talk to world class experts and leaders in government, medicine, business, and beyond who can share their firsthand experiences and explain how they make some of their biggest decisions. We’ll give you fresh insights to help you tackle the tough decisions in your professional life.


  You don’t have to look far these days to see that many Americans are skeptical of our political leaders and even our political system. A recent poll show that only 27% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Take one glance at the news and the animosity both between and within our political parties is immediately evident. Despite our wariness, many of us look for opportunities to participate constructively in the political process. Some of us may even wonder how to make a difference serving directly in roles as public servants, yet the path to getting involved and becoming leaders ourselves can be difficult to navigate or even find.


  I can’t think of anyone who can speak to those challenges of getting involved in politics and offer advice more than my guest today. John Podesta has been a major player in American politics for nearly 50 years. Eventually serving as White House chief of staff to President Clinton and later counselor to President Obama, where he was responsible for coordinating the administration’s climate policy and related initiatives.


  Podesta also chaired Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016. He is the founder and a member of the board of directors for the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. Listen in, as John walks me through the lessons he’s learned from his decades of service. The ways in which he’s seen our political system and culture change and the young politicians he sees as the leaders of tomorrow.


  John, welcome to Deciding Factors.


John Podesta: Good to be with you, Eric.


Eric Jaffe: So I thought we could start by talking about your career in politics. You worked for several campaigns first, Joseph Duffy for senate in Connecticut in 1970. Then you worked on a, a couple of presidential campaigns, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. For our listeners out there who might either be considering getting involved in politics or have kids thinking about getting involved in politics, why did you choose to go into politics and what did you learn about politics on those early campaigns?


John Podesta: Well, I started in the 1968 presidential campaign with Eugene McCarthy. That was a campaign with a purpose and a message, which was to end the war in Vietnam. I was in college at the time. The public sentiment had turned decidedly negative on the war. The cost were extreme in terms of loss of life and casualty. And the gains became further and further away. So McCarthy took on an incumbent president of his own party, Linda Johnson. I joined that campaign because I thought the most direct vehicle to end the war in Vietnam was to try to campaign for a candidate who pledged to end it.


Likewise with Joe Duffy who ran for the senate in Connecticut in 1970, George McGovern in 1972. I think those experiences were really about changing the direction of the country and seeking leaders who had fundamentally different views from the direction the country was going under first President Johnson and then President Nixon.


Eric Jaffe: Through talking about your career, after you worked on presidential campaigns, you then worked on Capitol Hill in a number of staff roles and ultimately as counselor to democratic senate majority leader, Tom Daschle. Could you talk a bit about what being a staffer was like on Capitol Hill, back in the ’80s and the ’90s and how perhaps that culture has changed?


John Podesta: Yeah. The culture was actually quite different back then. There was a deep divide. I spent most of my time on Capitol Hill working on the senate judiciary committee. And you had senators leading that committee from Ted Kennedy to Strom Thurmond. So from the most liberal part of the Democratic Party to the most conservative party of the Republican Party. We would scrap around. We would often disagree, but I think the culture was one in which the process was respected. I had very good friends on the other side of the aisle.


We socialized together. Our families grew up together. I was pretty young then. And we were friends with Republicans, and very conservative Republicans indeed. That’s really changed. I think people don’t talk to each other much across the aisle. It’s like 100% sent combat all the time. There are certain pockets that remain ones where because of leadership on a certain committee or another, people still try to find honest compromises. But for the most part, we’ve become much more tribal.


The culmination of that was what we saw really on January 6th with a president who was trying to challenge the legitimate results of a presidential election. And then the division between people who were concerned for our democracy and those who basically were willing to go along with what was ultimately a big lie.


Eric Jaffe: One theory out there is that Newt Gingrich when he became speaker of the house in ’95 launched this culture of tribalism and negative tone, we see so much of today. Do you buy that?


John Podesta: Well, I think it’s a bit of both. I think that people feel that the system is rigged against ordinary people. It’s the rise of this professionalization of influence peddling in Washington. But I also think that Gingrich in particular practice of politics of personal destruction that had impact. I mean, he became speaker of the house. I think he was challenging a different style of leadership in the Republican Party at the time.


Gingrich saw the path to power in as being in essence, a scorched earth path. He practiced that and was successful. I think as time went on people copied it. I don’t think that Democrats were immune from that. They saw it work and they knew that you had to in essence, fight fire with fire. So the personal attacks became more the norm. Leaders going into their counterparts states and districts, and campaigning against them, which would never have happened in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s became the norm.


It bred a sort of tribalism that I think was reflected in the way, not just politics was conducted, but it became really amplified by the effect of social media. It’s maybe cliche to say it, but it became a culture war between two very different views of how democracy should be conducted, how people should relate with each other to try to find common solutions. It’s, I think, sad to see for the country, but it is what it is.


Eric Jaffe: When you’re the chief of staff to a president, and probably when you were working as counselor to President Obama, I think working on climate change, part of your job is to tee up tough decisions for the president. In Deciding Factors, we like to examine decisions and decision-making. What was your process for helping your principals make tough decisions? And what did you learn from all those various people about how to make a good decision?


John Podesta: Well, you have to know your principle. First off, how they absorb information, whether they like getting more of the pros and cons of any decision on paper or they want to hear it directly, how they want to see debate happen in a decision making context. So I felt like I knew president Clinton quite well. I had known him for a really long time. You mentioned a campaign. We worked together on a campaign in 1970 and had known him since then.


I got to know him better in my first job in the White House when I was the staff secretary. I didn’t even know what the job was when I accepted the offer to do it. But it’s the person who manages all the paper that goes to and from the president.


You get to know the president like a historian gets to know someone because you’re seeing a lot of his thoughts expressed in writing on paper that’s going back and forth. It’s a little different now, much more the information is transmitted electronically. Your staff, they’re the principal. They got elected. They’re making the decision. So you have to adjust your style of how you’re presenting and what you’re presenting to the president based on what is going to work for them.


Having said that particularly in those two cases, they were people that wanted dissent. They welcomed it. They wanted to hear opposing positions. They would probe and scrap around with you and push back on arguments. You had to come extremely well prepared, but that was the norm was to be well prepared. But then they wouldn’t always accept, whatever. Even consensus staff advice, they would push back hard on it. And you have to be able to stand your ground if you thought that they wanted to go off in a direction that you thought was a mistake.


So it was a lively exchange of ideas. They approached topics a little bit differently. I describe Bill Clinton as a horizontal thinker. He knows something about everything, and he could bring to bear knowledge from things that you would think have no relationship to each other and bring them front and center in trying to work through a hard problem.


President Obama, in my view was more of a classically trained thinker in depth. He was deductive in the way he approached problems. He was more like a well prepared lawyer trying to get to the right decision, the right brief. But they’re both exceedingly talented and smart, but they just kind of approached decision-making slightly differently. And I think one needed to adjust to that.


Again, they both wanted dissent. I think that’s the most important thing that I learned from those experiences is that the best decisions are made when you created an environment where people can say you’re wrong. And you say it respectfully, because they’re the president of the United States, but you can tell them that you think they’re wrong, and they will honor that actually rather than resist it.


The reason you run for this job is because you think you’re going to be able to make a difference. In most president’s cases, I think Trump is a bit of an exception. I’m going to come back to Trump. But I think this was true of both President Bush’s. It’s true of Clinton. It’s true of Obama. They had a sense of where they thought the country was and where it needed to go, why they were the right person to take it on that journey. And they were willing to push and utilize their power to move the country along.


I strongly disagreed with many of the decisions that President George W. Bush made, but I thought he was engaged in a process of trying to do what was right for the country from his perspective. And I think his team likewise was built to try to do that. I remain quite friendly with Josh Bolton, his chief of staff, with Steve Hadley, his national security advisor to this day. The difference with Trump is that he had no regard for what the boundaries were. I think it was more in his case, what was sort of satisfying to him at the moment and felt unconstrained by the law and the constitution.


I think that’s pretty dangerous. It was an exercise of power that we’re still trying to unpack particularly his refusal to admit defeat in the election.


Eric Jaffe: What have you seen the most successful leaders do? What do they have in common in their approach to maximizing their impact while they’re in office?


John Podesta: Well, I would say rule number one is keep your word. That might sound trite, but you’re going to be around for a while. Particularly on Capitol Hill, it’s kind of a repeat play kind of place. You’re going to have to go back to the same people and try to find ways to move things forward, to get along, to sometimes find compromise sometimes to oppose. It doesn’t matter what your ideology is, whether you’re conservative, whether you’re progressive, et cetera. If people trust you as being honest, being transparent, telling what you think, telling where you have some give, where your red lines are and you stick with that, I think you build a reputation for honesty, and that is really, really critical.


The other thing I would say is do your homework. If you look at the elected officials, those people who don’t try in the first weekend office before they’ve really figured out where the bathroom is to make a big splash often are flashes in the pan as it were. The people who are diligent, who study, who maybe hold back a little bit as they’re learning the ropes are usually the people who are going to be more successful over time.


Eric Jaffe: I’m curious your thoughts on cynicism in politics. What amount of cynicism is helpful versus hurtful. I wonder what your advice would be on calibrating the use of cynicism in politics.


John Podesta: I’m viewed as a tough fighter and a partisan, but I never got cynical. I’ve been doing this for 50 years. So I never got cynical. I always thought that politics could make a difference. That policy made a difference. The reward is when you get to see the fruits of that. And in real people, in people coming up to you on the rope line and said, “I took advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act that you signed.” Or people who were able to move from welfare to work and had a job, and they had the dignity of work.


I mean, those, those experiences are really reinforcing and rewarding and you just have to kind of enjoy them. I think they keep you from being too cynical. Having said that, you also have to play tough. Someone famous once said, “It’s not beanbag. Politics is a kind of rough and tumble sport and experience.” You have to be willing to be engaged that sort of combat. But never giving up on the values, the reason, the people that led you to want to try to do public service.


Eric Jaffe:


I guess the classic example of cynicism would be changing one’s position in order to placate constituents. What would be your advice to someone considering changing their position in order to win and stay in office?


John Podesta: I think everybody has a little bit of their own compass on that. I think there are things that when you’re checking what you really believe in at the door and you’ve gone to the point where you can’t recognize why you started in the enterprise, you’ve gone too far. But there’s ways to actually respect and listen. And there are places where in order to get to the destination, you might try a different tack.


Let me give you a specific example I’m engaged with right now. There are a lot of people who in the climate world who 15 years ago thought that there was only one approach. You either needed to price carbon or create a cap and trade system where you’re overall reducing carbon emissions through a scheme like that. That cap and trade provision passed the house in 2009, failed in the senate.


Biden really, I don’t know whether he had a strong view back then, but he’s really reformulated the whole policy with a whole different strategy, which is about investments, creating the right kind of standards and creating opportunity and a push towards investing in the things we want, clean energy, electric, transportation, et cetera. I think there are people who would say that we should have stuck with the old paradigm, but it wasn’t working. It didn’t get anything done.


There are a few people do their holdouts on the Congress today who suggests what Biden has proposed doesn’t make sense. What we really need is a carbon tax, but they don’t have any idea of how you enact a carbon tax. So I think you have to make judgements about what you need to do to make the sale with your constituents, but most importantly to make the sale in terms of getting policy done. I think that’s an exercise in realism in practical policy-making. I don’t think that’s cynical as much as it is a way of getting to your goal.


Eric Jaffe: Definitely resonates. I really want to ask you about media and here, I’m really talking about the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal. In terms of their political reporting, it seems like they haven’t… They’ve adapted somewhat to the changes of the last 10 years, but they’ve been slow. My hypothesis is that the so-called objective reporting on the one hand, on the other hand doesn’t work anymore. And it doesn’t add a lot of value. What they could really add a lot of value with, especially in their political reporting would be context and analysis, and the story behind the story. They don’t report most of the time on why different actors are saying and doing different things. They report objectively on the facts, but that misses the story I feel like a lot of the time. Do you agree, or am I being overwrought in my hypothesis?


John Podesta: No, I think that’s pretty accurate. It really hit a trough maybe four or five years ago. It’s better, but they’re always battling for the latest trends. They’re victims themselves of the real distortion that social media has thrown around the dialogue now. I think the worst example of that of course is Facebook, which is in the business of pushing people towards extraordinary extremes, including conspiracies. We see that with COVID, not just politics, climate change, other things.


But then the mainstream media chases that. I think it’s gotten a little better and more reflective as the larger news organization have stabilized, stop hemorrhaging money and been able to add some talent to their reporting pools. But it’s an ongoing challenge to democracy for sure.


Eric Jaffe: John, last question I thought I’d ask you, are there any younger generation political leaders in the country that we should have our eye on that you think are particularly talented?


John Podesta: Sure. Look, I think there’s a whole crop of people were elected in 2018 that came into, and ran for office. Many with some experience from the executive branch or from city or state government that were inspired to get engaged because they saw the country really going in a dangerous direction. I’m thinking of people like Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, Andy Kim in New Jersey, Mike Levin in California. Deb Haaland is now the same secretary of interior, so out of Congress. That class, if you will, was one of my favorites. I think they will over time, really have as profound an effect as a class on politics in the country as the class of ’74, the so-called Watergate babies had going back in the post Nixon election.


I think there’s a lot of talent out there and there’s a lot of talent, particularly like in municipal government, in cities. They have a different more ground level appreciation for having to get something done. The one thing about Congress is… And I think one of the reasons that Congress is held in such low esteem is they don’t necessarily have to work. And sometimes they don’t, and they can take forever. We’re experiencing that right now with the struggle to get both the bipartisan infrastructure bill done, and the reconciliation package both are vital for the country.


But when you’re the mayor and you’ve got to make sure the garbage gets picked up, you got a much more ground level feel for that. So I think that’s another place to look for future leaders.


Eric Jaffe: Well, John, this was the highlight of my month. Thank you so much for being on Deciding Factors. A fascinating conversation. I really appreciate you coming on.


John Podesta: Good to be with you, Eric.


Eric Jaffe: That was John Podesta, former White House chief of staff to President Clinton and counselor to President Obama among countless other roles. My biggest takeaway from our interview is that despite how tough an enterprise politics can be, it’s possible for someone like John to remain optimistic and even disavow cynicism. We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors featuring another one of GLGs network members.


  Every day, GLG facilitates conversations with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcast. We’d love to hear from you. Or email us at if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors in GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.


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