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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. the Obama White House is bringing in the cavalry as it ends a tough political year. The president's making some changes - hiring a few new people to augment his current White House staff. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on an important new addition.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's not big enough to be called a shakeup, but the new hire announced this week at the White House is important. John Podesta will be coming on board in January as a counselor to the president. Podesta is a Democratic wise man; the founder of the Center for American Progress, a policy and personnel incubator for Democratic administrations. And he just started a new think tank on income inequality, the problem President Obama says will animate his second term.

Podesta is also a second-term crisis-management specialist. He was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, helping him survive impeachment. And he's already soothed some jangled nerves among the current president's supporters in Washington.

DEE DEE MYERS: I thought, fantastic.

LIASSON: That's Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton's former press secretary. She's one of a small, inside-the-Beltway-but-very-important-to-the-White-House group of Democrats who have been desperate for reassurance that the recently unsteady Obama White House was getting its act together. With the Podesta announcement, the White House appears to have sent that message.

MYERS: I think they've known for a while that they need to reach out, they need to broaden their circle a little. The president has been famously reluctant to do that, so how do you widen the lens? And one of the ways you do that is, you reach out and you bring in new people. And it's very helpful to bring in people who come preloaded with tremendous experience - been there, understand the challenges of the White House and of the presidency writ large.

LIASSON: Podesta is not a completely new face in the Obama camp. He ran the president-elect's widely praised transition team in 2008 and '09, and he's been advising the White House from the outside. For some time now, he's been telling the Obama team that as legislative action becomes increasingly less likely, it should focus more on using the president's executive powers. Here's Podesta in an NPR interview in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

JOHN PODESTA: He's got a lot of authority that comes to him under the laws and Constitution of the United States to implement policy change that I think can be effective to build that society of high-growth competitiveness and innovation. So I think that he's got a lot of cards to play, and I think he can be extremely successful.

LIASSON: The White House has taken Podesta's advice, often to the frustration of Congress. And with Podesta inside, the president will probably do even more. Here's Podesta talking to me in another interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PODESTA: The execution of government does make a difference. It sounds incremental but in the end of the day, putting those points on the board will make a difference in terms of what the growth rate is, what the unemployment rate is.

LIASSON: Execution of government is a Podesta focus and lately, it's been an embarrassing weakness for the Obama administration. Not surprisingly, Republicans dismissed this latest personnel move as a distraction, pointing to a series of troubles - from Syria to the NSA eavesdropping but above all, to the health care rollout - that have hurt the president's ratings on credibility and competence. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: I won't give the president any advice on his own staff, but the problem here is the substance of his No. 1 issue. The issue he wanted to be most associated with is a failure. And no amount of shifting the chairs around on the Titanic is going to solve that problem.

LIASSON: No, John Podesta can't erase the fact that the website didn't work, or that the president made a promise that he now says ended up being inaccurate. But, says Democrat Steve Elmendorf, Podesta can help a lot.

STEVE ELMENDORF: Nobody can make up for where they are. The president's admitted they made some mistakes, the staff has admitted they made some mistakes; and they need to fix it. And what John can do is provide direction, and a fresh set of eyes and ears, on how to move forward and do the right thing.

LIASSON: Podesta and the White House have a lot on their plates for the new year. They've got to get the health care law working; they need to figure out a plan to help Democrats get through the 2014 elections with the least amount of damage; and then, starting with the president's State of the Union speech early next year, they need to map out the final chapter of the Obama presidency.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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