ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
So, in four days, the Democrats will convene in Denver. And in one speech after another they'll try to convince the American people that they have got the cure for what ails us.
John Podesta says the cure is a return to progressive politics. He's written a book called "The Power of Progress: How America's Progressives Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate, and Our Country."
Podesta was chief of staff in President Clinton's White House. He is now the head of a Washington think-tank called the Center for American Progress. Welcome to the program, Mr. Podesta.
Mr. JOHN PODESTA: (President, Center for American Progress): It's great to be with you.
SIEGEL: You know, when conservatives hear Democrats talk about being progressive, they say that's just a way of avoiding saying liberal, that it's an evasion, it means the same thing. What do you say?
Mr. PODESTA: Well, I don't mind being called a liberal, but I think that they do have distinct roots. And one of the things I wanted to do in the book is trace the roots of progressive politics from the turn of the last century, when activists, citizens, politicians, thinkers came together during the first Gilded Age and really created a spirit of reform, created a sense of experimentation aimed at trying to create a more fair society, more just society, and one that needed great reform in order to build a great middle class in this country.
So I think that root of progressive politics that goes back to Teddy Roosevelt, you know, it's not partisan; it's got feet in both parties, has moved forward through the course of the 20th century. And I think there are a lot of lessons to be applied from that era to the big problems we face now, which are global in nature.
SIEGEL: As best as I understand the ideas underlying the Obama campaign, it's not merely that they are very novel, new solutions that we might apply to problems. It's that the way Washington operates and the influence of lobbies in Washington makes it impossible for the executive and legislative branches to actually act on these problems and enact the solutions that are before them. Do you buy that? That there's something broken about the relationship between Washington and lobbyists and special interests?
Mr. PODESTA: Well, there's a fierce level of partisanship in Washington that needs to be overcome that I think both campaigns are trying to appeal to. But I think that when you say that it isn't very different, it is certainly a hard break from where the direction, I think, that President Bush has taken the country.
I think that the plan that Senator Obama has laid out is quite different in terms of its emphasis on the middle class, on providing health care for all, on changing direction on - with respect to national security and trying to deal with all the tools that America has available to it, particularly its diplomatic tools and trying to rekindle and reemphasize our traditional alliances.
So I think it's very different in direction between the conservative status quo and a kind of progressive direction that he's laid out. But clearly the obstacle to success, to some extent, is politics and is political reform.
SIEGEL: Is Senator Obama right? I mean, by coincidence, your brother is a Washington lobbyist.
Mr. PODESTA: Yes, he is.
SIEGEL: I assume that his contributions are unwelcome at the Obama campaign because they don't want any money from lobbyists. Are lobbyists what the problem is in Washington?
Mr. PODESTA: Well, I think special interest influence on policy is what the problem is in Washington. And lobbyists, I think, have some role to play in that. But I think ultimately what's happened is we've had a government, I think, particularly at the - in this administration, which has focused on the wealthy and the special interests and corporations.
And again, we've created a kind of second Gilded Age, and lobbyists certainly help support that and have helped President Bush move the country in that direction. And I think it'll take breaking that hold of lobbyists - if you think about the energy challenge that we face - and move in a more progressive direction and one that I think is going to work better for the American people.
But lobbyists are, you know, kind of a fact of life. And I think what we need is leadership and ideas that are going to move in a direction that the American public can rally around.
SIEGEL: Yeah, I should - I'll leave the subject. But before doing so I should, I think in the interest of full disclosure say, that on brother's list of clients, National Public Radio is actually included. I don't know what they did for us, but they represent lots of folks.
You write about the - well, the forerunners of the progressive party, the populists, who famously looking at the inequalities in American life in the Gilded Age, urged that federal government become bigger and stronger to come to the aid of American citizens and to bring about some kind of social justice.
I've been in Washington now for 32 years, and I've heard presidents of both parties many times explain how great it is that we're in the era of small government, and that the days of the government getting bigger are thankfully behind us.
Do you think the American public is at a point where it's willing to regard Washington as its agent, which might - if strengthened and enlarged - be stronger and bigger on its behalf as opposed to a problem?
Mr. PODESTA: Well, I wouldn't use the term bigger, but it has to be stronger, and it has to be smarter, and it has to focus on the problems of the middle class.
You know, I worked for Bill Clinton. At the time he left office, his job approval rating was in the high 60s. So I think people got a sense that even as he was shrinking the federal workforce, he was delivering the goods for the American public, on the economy, on crime. Crime went down…
SIEGEL: But it was his reading of 1994, was the age of big government is over whatever…
Mr. PODESTA: By that I think he meant the age of bureaucratic government was over, but not the age of a strong government that could come to the aid of its people. And I think that this idea of shrinking government, weakening government, we saw play out with the reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
You know, the American public doesn't need a big federal bureaucracy, but it needs a smart, strong government that is got to work to ensure that their lives can be successful. We need community activism. We need to empower people in cities and states to solve problems. But that focus on the common good and on providing opportunity for everyone has been lost, in my view, over the last seven years. We need to return to it.
SIEGEL: Well, John Podesta, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
Mr. PODESTA: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's John Podesta, former White House chief of staff, who has now written "The Power of Progress: How America's Progressives Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate and Our Country."
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