President Obama is engaged in a slow-motion shake-up of his White House. During the past two weeks, he has taken major steps to shore up weak spots among his advisers and prepare for the political battles of 2014.
Most important, Obama named John Podesta, former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, as a senior counselor. This is widely seen by strategists of both major parties as a move toward taking a more combative approach to Obama's conservative adversaries because of Podesta's feisty reputation.
Podesta is a strong advocate of using the president's unilateral powers, such as executive orders, to bypass the Republican majority in the House that has blocked much of Obama's agenda. The administration is already preparing regulations designed to combat climate change by restricting coal-fired power plants, and Podesta is expect to give impetus to this and other unilateral efforts, such as protecting federal land from development.
Podesta played a key role in keeping the Clinton White House running smoothly on policy issues during Clinton's second-term impeachment trial. Podesta also was in charge of Obama's transition team after he won the White House in 2008
As a leader of the Center for American Progress, a liberal research and advocacy group, Podesta has strongly urged Obama to go around Congress, arguing that the president's executive powers offer "a real opportunity for the Obama administration to turn its focus away from a divided Congress and the unappetizing process of making legislative sausage." Beyond this, Podesta has advocated initiatives to reduce income inequality, which Obama has said will be a key issue for him for the remainder of his second term.
Podesta is already drawing controversy. White House officials have announced that he won't play a role in the administration's decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which the Center for American Progress has opposed but which many conservatives support. White House officials say the decision-making process is far advanced and Podesta's involvement isn't needed. Opponents of the Keystone pipeline, however, have expressed concern that Podesta won't be participating in the Keystone decision. The pipeline would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast of the United States.
In his counselor's role, Podesta will report to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who remains in his job. At the same time, White House counselor Pete Rouse, a long-time Obama aide, will be leaving his post.
Obama also is bringing back Phil Schiliro, his congressional lobbyist in 2009-2010, to be another senior adviser, with a special focus on implementing the Affordable Care Act, Obama's trouble-plagued health-care initiative. The rollout of the ACA's website has been an embarrassment to the president so far, and Schiliro is supposed to make sure the health-care law is better administered in the future.
And Obama has named Katie Beirne Fallon as his chief congressional lobbyist, replacing Miguel Rodriguez. Fallon is well connected with Capitol Hill Democrats but Republicans say she isn't close to GOP legislators and this will be a problem since the Republicans control the House. Fallon is a former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and, more recently, has been deputy White House communications director.
"It would be foolish to suggest that this hasn't been a rough year, and it is also true that many of the people who are there – all splendid people – but they have been there for a very long time," David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser, told MSNBC. "I think you constantly need to refresh your team in order to move forward in the presidency, and this is certainly a recognition of that."
Obama advisers say he is also looking for a new White House legal counsel. Kathryn Ruemmler, the current counsel, says she is leaving for the private sector next spring.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.