"The decision to bring him in, I think, has had a pronounced effect in terms of continuing to drive through times when there are other issues that are on the president's plate," says Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a self-described "climate hawk" who was among the lawmakers who wanted more from Obama's first term.
President Obama and Podesta walk to the Oval Office after returning from a meeting at the Pentagon. (Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)Several people interviewed for this story made the same point about Podesta's ability to keep the gears turning on climate policy, even as other crises flare.
McCarthy, who speaks frequently with Podesta, says Obama has been clear with his team that he wants tackling climate change to be part of his presidential legacy. "John has not let anybody in the administration forget that," she tells me.
IT IS ONE THING to announce new policies, and quite another to see them rolled out nationwide. The administration's various energy and environmental programs now face a challenge greater than the competition for Obama's attention—they face a Congress that will be run by Republicans who have vowed to unwind the president's efforts.
Consider the most sweeping and controversial piece of the second-term climate plan: carbon-emissions standards for power plants. On Podesta's watch, EPA met its June deadline to release a draft of the new rule. That was crucial to the administration's attempt to get the regulations implemented before Obama moves out of the White House. If the rule is finalized next June as planned, that sets in motion a timeline for states to start submitting plans in June of 2016 explaining how they will comply.
Already, though, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is promising to throw up roadblocks. In an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader after Republicans defeated enough Democrats to secure control of the next Senate, McConnell said a top priority is "to try to do whatever I can to get the [Environmental Protection Agency] reined in." Some incoming GOP senators have echoed him. "We've been picked as a loser, and I'm not going to stand for it," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who will shift from the House to the Senate in the next Congress.
The White House is pushing the bounds of what's achievable without Congress.
McConnell has signaled that he will seek to thwart EPA regulations with restrictions, or "riders," attached to spending bills. And Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who calls climate change a "hoax," will regain the gavel of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, giving him a platform from which to attack White House policy as well.
New congressional battles over climate and energy policy have already begun. Earlier this week, the Senate narrowly rejected legislation to force approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, a bill the White House had repeatedly bashed, arguing that the administration's years-long review should be allowed to play out. That fight is sure to resume next year; the GOP's midterm election gains created a pro-pipeline filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and the president has hinted that he would veto such legislation if it passes. (Podesta opposes Keystone, but according to the White House he told McDonough last December that he would not get involved in the fight while working for Obama.)