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John Podesta: Obama Has 'Warmed Up' To Executive Orders


Presidential advisor John Podesta is on the line. He is a former advisor to President Clinton. He formerly joined President Obama's White House staff a few weeks ago, just in time for the State of the Union speech tonight. Mr. Podesta, welcome back to the program.

JOHN PODESTA: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Tamara Keith had the numbers just a little while ago. Last year the president asked Congress for 41 things and he got two of them. And of course it's the same Congress. Do you have any reason to think he'll do better in 2014?

PODESTA: Well, I think that he's going to put some things on the table before the Congress that are big things that the Congress can do. Probably topping that list is immigration reform, and there's some appetite for that with the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. He'll call on them to raise the minimum wage.

But I think he's also going to lay out a number on concrete practical proposals to speed up the recovery that he can control. He's calling 100 CEOs of top companies from around the country to the White House on Friday to have them pledge to give the long term unemployed a fair shot at a new job and a new chance to support their families.

So those are the kinds of things he can do without going back to Congress and I think he intends to spend the year making progress and doing those kinds of things.

INSKEEP: We're seeing news reports this morning that the president will issue an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers, which we're told is something he can do without Congressional approval. Is he going to do that?

PODESTA: He will do that. Of course he will call on the Congress to raise the minimum wage for everyone in the country. It hasn't been raised since 2009, at levels that we haven't seen since Harry Truman. He'll also work with mayors and governors who are trying to raise the minimum wages in their states and cities.

But if we all do our job, I think that Congress can get around to raising the minimum wage for every American worker and it's long overdue and it's the fair thing to do.

INSKEEP: So a lot of focus here on executive action without Congress. But I was reading this fascinating report in the New Yorker magazine by David Remnick, the editor of that publication, who followed the president around, as you know, and records a couple of instances in which hecklers demanded executive orders. There was even a case in which the president said that's not how it works, we've got this Constitution. He didn't really want to do executive orders. Aren't there very real limits, John Podesta, to what the president can do?

PODESTA: What they were asking him to do was essentially bypass the entire Congressional process on comprehensive immigration reform, and I think the president thought that was a bridge too far. But I think he has stopped the deportation of so-called Dream Act kids, kids who came here - were brought here as minors and who are, you know, in school or serving in the military.

And I think that there's a - if he believes and the Justice Department believes he has the authority to make progress to strengthen the middle class, give people opportunity in this country, he will take it.

INSKEEP: But he doesn't like to do this, does he?

PODESTA: I think he's warmed up to it, and I think you'll see that across a wide range of topics, including retirement security, moving forward on his climate change and energy transformation agenda. There's a lot that he has the authority to do that's vested in him under the laws of the United States and his constitutional powers, and I think that he's looking forward to a year of action and I think he's looking forward to tonight as a breakthrough year where he can lay out some of these practical concrete ideas that will get people on more stable economic footing and see their wages going up for the first time in a long time.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Podesta. I assume the president will say something about it. We'll recall here that President Karzai of Afghanistan still has not signed a security deal that would allow U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan past the end of this year. And you were on this program in December and you said at that time that if President Karzai didn't sign by the new year, which is now past, the United States should plan for the possibility of withdrawing and in fact that it would be difficult to reverse field at this point. Do you still think it would be hard to reverse field at this point?

PODESTA: You know, obviously the clock is ticking here, and without BSA I think there's not real chance that the United States is going to keep any forces in Afghanistan and I think that, you know, opens up the question of what the relationship will be over the long term. But the president will speak to that question tonight. If the Afghan government wants to fulfill its commitment that it negotiated to sign the bilateral security agreement, then the president will describe what the United States will do in return and he'll talk about that this evening.

INSKEEP: Mr. Podesta, we noted a Gallup poll that showed the president's relatively low approval rating and broke it down state by state. And of course it's one survey. Surveys are different. But Gallup, we noted, had five states in which Democrats are defending a seat in the United State Senate in this year's election, five states where Democrats are defending seats and the president's approval rating is below 35 percent.

West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Alaska, Arkansas. What can the president do for Democrats when his approval rating is below 35 percent in some key places?

PODESTA: Well, look, I think the first thing he can do is to make sure that he's successful in this year and that the economy's successful, that we get more growth, that we see wages going up, and I think that will change the terms of his job approval. You know, we came off a very difficult last few months in the last year with the Republicans shutting down the government in the budget standoff, almost defaulting, and then the failed rollout of the healthcare website. So you know, that - he took his knocks on his job approval, but I think the way to reverse that is to get to work, do the things that he will discuss in the State of the Union this evening. So I think he's just got to do his job, really.

INSKEEP: That's new White House advisor John Podesta, who spoke with us a little bit earlier today on this day of President Obama's State of the Union address. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.