And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.
John Podesta may not be a household name, but over a lifetime, he's been one of the most formidable and impactful figures in American politics and government. Senior counselor to three presidents, Podesta is currently overseeing the implementation of President Biden's clean energy initiatives for the White House. I sat down with Podesta this week to speak with him about his long and colorful life and career and the issue that caused him to put retirement on hold. Here's that conversation. John Podesta, it's great to see you. I'm sitting here in your hometown, the city of Chicago. You're a product of what we call here the Northwest side. Tell me about that. Growing up on the Northwest side of Chicago.
Well, thanks, David. It's a great, and it's also great, it's great to be with you and great to be talking to someone from Chicago. I was just back there, actually. Yeah, I grew up my father was a blue collar worker. My mother worked at night. We grew up in a kind of working class neighborhood in in the Northwest side of Chicago, around Lawrence and Elston, for the Chicago listeners.
And I went to Lane Tech and then off to college and got involved in politics at a young age in the antiwar movement working for Gene McCarthy.
Yeah, well, go don't slow down, because I want to take this in clumps. I don't want to gloss over your folks, because your dad was Italian American, your mother was Greek American.
And so the one thing I know is you probably ate well.
We ate well and we yelled at each other well. But we, we loved at each other deeply. And, you know, that's that's what counts. You know, it's an amazing, intense experience to grow up in a family that that really shares that bond and and loyalty to each other. And so that, I've carried that with me all my life.
Yeah, you have. You. I mean, what's so interesting to me, reading your sort of long and interesting history, is your the closeness to your brother and the things that you've done together almost from the beginning, even though he was five years older than you. But I have to say, I read in getting ready for this, I read a resolution that was passed in the state Senate when your mom passed. And one of the things it referenced was Mama Podesta's famous pesto sauce.
Yeah, she learned that from my grandmother. You know, my mother was the Greek side of the family, and my grandmothers both emigrated to Chicago very, very young on their own. My my Greek grandmother was 14. My Italian grandmother was 15. By themselves, never went back, never saw their parents again. I was thinking about that during Covid. You know, how much. I didn't see my kids for and grandchildren for a year, and how hard that was on me. And then I was thinking about my grandmother. She, you know, all she did was write letters back to her mother for her whole life and never saw them again after she got on a boat and came to the United States.
Yeah. So you never, you never met them?
I didn't meet my great-grandparents. No. I've been back. I have relatives, particularly on the Greek side. And I was just there with my brother, actually, and my wife and and now his wife, about a year ago for a family wedding. And we, we're fairly close to the Greek family side of the wedding and went back to the village and saw the place where my grandmother was born. And.
You know, the house that that that she grew up in, and and as I said, left at a very early age. Animals, lived in the in the basement, you know, it was really amazing.
My my dad was an immigrant from Eastern Europe and in Ukraine, actually. And I really want to go back to that place. But obviously, it's a little a little hard right now. But I'm going to do that at some point.
You got to. I went to, I went to my father's parents home village, and you go to the little cemetery and like everybody for 700 years is named Podesta. It's gives you it gives you a sense of belonging.
I'm eager to do it. You grew up in the heyday of the Daley machine here in Chicago.
Probably knew your precinct captain when you were growing up.
Yeah, definitely. And the alderman. And the ward committeeman.
And your and your mom, I guess, was a poll worker in elections. But you weren't, politics wasn't a big thing in your home, though. Your dad wasn't particularly political. Is that right?
Right. Yeah. My mother was interested in politics. She watched Irv Kupcinet, you'll know the reference. Probably nobody else will.
Yeah, sure, he's a great Chicago columnist.
On television, read his column. She was a little bit more interested in politics, I think, than my father was. But look, your, you relied on politics that for things like when you needed a new 55 gallon drum to put your garbage in, you called your precinct captain, and one was delivered. And, you know, there's something good about that.
There is. There is. And he would come to you when he wanted you to deliver for him, as well, on Election Day. So you went off to college. Your dad never graduated from high school, but your parents encouraged you and your brother to go to college. You went to Knox College, which is a fine liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, famous for, founded by abolitionists. Famous for being the site of the probably the most important Lincoln-Douglas debate, so it has a history of activism there. And you became an activist when you were there. Talk about the era. You know, you and I grew up in roughly the same time period. Talk about the era that sort of politicized you.
Yeah, You know, only in Chicago, people could finish high school in the middle of the year. You started and finished in the middle of the year. So I finished in January of '67. So it's the height of the Vietnam War. And I had friends who were already being killed there. And the country had turned against the war. It was unclear whether Johnson was going to, President Johnson, was going to run for president at that point. I was a freshman in at and and I went off to Knox College, I was the first person to go away to college. My brother went to University of Illinois Chicago Circle. And I'm out there, you know, getting more revved up, riled up about the war and its consequences. And there was a great movement in this country about that, it kind of followed the wave of civil rights activism. But the antiwar activism was very, very intense. And I started working there in the antiwar movement, particularly in the political side, ended up working for Gene McCarthy. And you noted, my brother and I have always done a few things together. He he had finished college, and he was at M.I.T. at graduate school, and he went up to New Hampshire and worked for McCarthy in that first primary that showed.
Drove Johnson right out of the White House.
Johnson was vulnerable, and we were up in Wisconsin working for McCarthy when Johnson announced that he wouldn't run. And then I left school, went on the road all around the country.
This is, by the way, a common story among political people. The seven year plan, you know? One year in schoo, one year working a campaign, you know, that kind of thing. But anyways, so you left school. You went on the trail?
Yeah, went on the trail. This is an aside that, you know, I'd never been out of Chicago, really. I mean, about the furthest I'd been was St. Joe, Michigan. So I saw the country, really, because I was out in Nebraska and Oregon when when we were in the intense primary against Bobby Kennedy, in California, when he was assassinated, went back to New York through the convention and then was, you know, disenchanted, I guess, but not completely removed from the notion that you can make change happen through politics.
Were you here in town for the convention in '68?
What are your what are your recollections? Were you, were you out in Grant Park?
Well, I was out, I was both out in Grant Park and in the Conrad Hilton Hotel when the Chicago police raided it, working both as part of the McCarthy operation there and also kind of on the protest side of the fence, if you will. Fence is the wrong word, really, because there were, they had deployed the National Guard. So there was a line of National Guard soldiers with fixed bayonets, you know, facing off the people in in Grant Park. And I remember that distinctly, because one of those people that was kind of up at the near the front, and one of those people was the son of my godfather. And so I saw him and, you know, said hello. We both told each other, take care of each other, take care of ourselves. And it was quite a scene. The intensity of that was amazing.
You grew up in a community called Jefferson Park. A lot of police officers lived up there, a pretty conservative community. What did your folks think about all of this? Must have been sort of a culture shock for them.
Yeah, they had, were supportive in a way. You know, they're kind of those old traditional blue collar, working class Democrats. So I think the young people, you know, it it kind of is confluent with rock and roll music and hippies and long hair and this and that. So it's cultural, as well as political. And that was that was like hard to absorb, but probably particularly for my father. But yeah, he was just a very generous person. And I think, you know, he knew we were off doing our thing and, and respected that. And I don't think either one of them really thought at that point that the war was worth fighting. There were too many people getting killed. There was no clear end, there was no particular articulated reason why we were there. When you think about it, you know, more than 50,000 American servicemen and women killed. And that was really in neighborhoods like mine, that was deep in the neighborhood. You know, those are the people who were getting drafted and going off and and a lot of them injured. A lot of them killed. My next door neighbor, who I was very close to, was about a year older than I am, was about a year ahead of me in high school, wrote a book about his experiences in Vietnam, which is very moving. You know, and so I think it wasn't as hard as you might think. We, at least in my house, we weren't like at each other. That happened. I think a lot of people, you know, people thought that this, you know, this generation was just off in a direction that they couldn't understand. But for my parents, they were pretty accepting of it.
You talk about how deeply the war cut into the sort of working class neighborhoods of places like Chicago. You know, I mean, it's been reported by historians since, but apparently Mayor Daley came to believe it was a bad idea and tried to communicate that. You know, unfailingly loyal to the president, but, you know, was deeply concerned, because a lot of the kids in his neighborhood were being killed.
So those times, you know, we we live in very tumultuous times. And, you know, we'll talk about that a little more. But, you know, in that year, in 1968, you had two assassinations, of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In that decade, John F. Kennedy was killed. You had riots and a general sense of social upheaval. How do you compare that period with what we're experiencing now?
Oh, that's a really great question, David. I think in some ways, it was raw and more intense, but I think the country is more divided today than it was back then. That more fundamentally divided. I think that in '68, the argument was about the direction of the country, about the war, a little bit about civil rights. But people, there were very strong, you know, deeply held disagreements. Nixon's running on a campaign, you know, kind of against the movement towards more freedom by women and and young people. He's running a kind of racist campaign in the South, you know, subterranean. So there are echoes of that. But I think that there was also a kind of a deeper sense of we were all in one country and we needed to work it out. Now the division is, it feels harder to bridge, at least between, you know, there's no center as much as there was then. And the media kind of plays a different role, I think, kind of in terms of driving that division distinct from, you know, Walter Cronkite bringing everybody in their living room together on sort of a common step forward.
Probably doing as much as anybody to turn the country against the war in Vietnam, because he had.
That kind of power, we were all listening to one conversation. Now we all find our niche media, and we're sometimes informed, but always affirmed. And it's it's a different. I think that's a huge difference.
I actually worry about the country a little bit more than, you know, in my in my old age than I did when I was a kid. I think that, you know, I thought, you know, we're. As hard as it was, I thought it was possible to like, let's get things going in a good, in a good direction. And, you know, yeah, I'm still obviously still engaged in government and policy because I think that can make a difference in people's lives, particularly the people like the people I grew up with. But the division is is kind of more frozen and tense.
Yeah. We'll come back to that. I don't want to lose the thread of your story, and I can't cover all of it, because we only have an hour, and I need about ten. We could do a whole docu series on that. But you went off to Connecticut to work on a campaign with your brother for a guy named Joe Duffy, who was an anti-war candidate for the Senate in that state. You were you were in charge of the second District in Connecticut. There was a guy next door in the third District who also achieved some fame and notoriety later in life. Who was that guy?
Well, his name was Bill Clinton. And as David Maraniss famously wrote, he was first in his class. You know. Yeah. Bill Clinton was a law student. I was still in college. I left again.
Yeah. Yeah. I bet your folks weren't thrilled about that.
Yeah, they weren't that, that wasn't so great. But I went to Connecticut because that was kind of the premiere 1970 off-year antiwar campaign. It ended up being a three way race. Joe Duffy won unexpectedly the Democratic nomination on an anti-war platform, and Clinton was a law student and decided that he was going to work in this campaign. My brother was kind of managing the campaign with somebody you know well, Anne Wexler.
Who was the chair of the campaign. And Anne and Joe later got married. So I, I met him in that context, because we would go back and forth to headquarters in Hartford, or I actually went down and visited him once in New Haven. And he was you know, Maraniss wrote about this, but there was something special about him. You could, you could absolutely tell that this was a guy who just had a level of talent and charisma that was different than most of the other people like me who were going door to door and trying to convince people to work for Joe Duffy. He just was, you know, he had just that special talent to kind of relate to people and and understand their stories and bring them into his story and, you know, make that connection.
John, you'd work for him later, obviously, in a couple of different roles, including as his chief of staff at the end of his administration. Did it impact on your relationship that you were sort of peers back then as organizers, I mean, did it give you any kind of cred with him that you had sort of walked the same walk?
You know, once omebody is elected.
Because you've had this experience.
I know where you're going.
That person is Mr. President. And and the relationship changes. You know, you you drop the Bill. You know, notice I was having trouble, like, coughing up Bill?
Just in this conversation.
You have a different relationship, But you also, I think, he knew where, what my grounding was and where I had come from. And yes, we were, we were friends. We were legitimate friends. As well as having that relationship where he was the guy that got elected, I was staff. Jim Baker famously said the most important word in chief of staff is staff. And I wasn't at all, and I wasn't confused about that. But I also, I think because of, you know, we're, he's a little older than I am, but we're similar in age. We had, you know, somewhat early experiences together. I was tough with him, too. You know,.
Yeah, I want to ask about that.
I thought that my job was, you know, people, you know, talk about speaking truth to power. I thought my job was just to get right in his grill if I needed to. And he respected that. He, in some ways he cultivated that. I think he liked people who were tough with him.
You you both have, I would say, the ability to ratchet up the edge a little sometimes. You could, you both a little irascible at times. Did you go at it at times?
Oh, yeah. And it was it like is an interesting experience, because I'm standing on one side of the Oval, on the Resolute desk, and he's sitting in a chair on the other side. And we're both, I have a famous picture in the Cabinet room of we're both pointing our fingers at each other, like screaming at each other, pointing our fingers in each other's face. And he wrote we, you know, we often got along, but not always as a caption on that picture.
You know, I had obviously a somewhat similar kind of dynamic, because I knew Barack Obama before he ever was in public office, just when he was a young guy who came back from Harvard to run a voter registration drive. And because of that relationship, when there was bad news to be delivered, oftentimes people would say, Axe, you got to go in and talk to him. You know, and I would have to say stuff that he didn't want to hear, and and he never was really happy to hear it. By and large, though, he, I think, understood where I was coming from, and my, you know, our relationship made it easier, I think, to do that. And I think it's important for every president to have people around him who have that kind of relationship. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You started in the administration, in the Clinton administration, as secretary of the cabinet staff.
Staff secretary. Yeah. Which means you, that you reviewed all these documents that went back and forth to the president and so on. You're a, you're a lawyer. But it seems to me that your other job was as the sort of chief spear catcher in a very tumultuous and political environment. And in some ways, it was a forerunner of what was to come. I mean, there was a relentless assault on you guys, Travelgate and other things. You handled all that. And at the end, you were the chief of staff during the impeachment. And obviously that was hard to match. How how did you keep the government going, at a time when the president was, I mean, this may obviously we live in a time where impeachment is becoming more familiar. But how did you manage that? Because that that's something that could literally stop the operation.
Yeah. Well, first of all, the way I got into this was I had worked on the Hill for a long time, mostly for Pat Leahy, just left office as the guy having been there the longest. Great, great guy. But I had worked on the Hill. I'm a lawyer. Most of the early problems that we had to deal with in terms of House investigations and Senate investigations and whatever originated in the counsel's office. So they were, they were sort of out of play to manage the problem, so somehow the then chief of staff Mack McLarty figured that out. So he handed these things off to me. And I was, I don't know this what this says about me, good or bad, but I was kind of good at it, at managing these pseudo scandals. And so I just kept doing it, even as deputy chief of staff when I was there at the beginning of the second term, it was sort of left to me. I had, you know, kind of cast iron stomach for it, was willing to go at it.
That's the Northwest side for you.
And then, you know, during the impeachment, I felt, to your question, how do you manage the White House? I think that we were certain about what we were doing, first of all, which was that the president was elected to improve the lives of American people. That's what he was elected for. That's what he thought about when he went into the Oval Office. Sure, it's distracting, but you had to do your job. And what we ended up doing was had a group of people, a few, some lawyers, some communications people, that dealt with whatever the investigation was, or in the case of the impeachment, the Lewinsky matter, they dealt with that. Everybody else was charged with not talking about it, not thinking about it. You know, it was wall to wall coverage on television. What did that mean? Turn off the television. Do the work you were there to do. Represent the people. And I was the disciplinarian. You know, there were there was that team that worked on the on the communication side, worked with the legal team. They did their job. Everyone else had to do what the American people expected of them. And we had a tremendous record going forward with the economy and social policy and environmental policy. You know, one of the things I just revisited was the efforts we did in terms of conservation. So we were piling up a tremendous record of success. And that was the secret also to, I think in some level, the defense of the president. This was a charge leveled against him that did not have, I think, to do with what he was doing as president. It was a terrible personal mistake and we need to move on from it. But it wasn't an impeachable offense. And we believed that and were and had that conviction and believed that he was taking the country in a good direction. So we all fought for that. And I think that it took discipline to make sure that people, you know, kept that perspective and kept that attitude and kept every day trying to take the country forward. But that's what we did. And I think we we're pretty successful at it.
Well, the country thought so, too, because he left as a very popular president and a very accomplished president. But let me ask you, we talked earlier about, you know, the role that you played in kind of confronting him with things that needed to be said. You know, famously, what happened during that period was he had first said that these stories were untrue about his relationship. Then he acknowledged that. That must have been a tough conversation.
Uh, yeah. Yeah. You know, I think it was a little easier for me than it was with Hillary. But.
I'm sure that's true. I'm sure, that's true. But you must have gone in there and said wtf? I mean.
Yeah. I mean. We were both known to swear a lot, and I think I probably got to new heights during during that period of time. You know, there was a kind of sense that something happened, but, you know, basically he had denied the affair. I think in his own mind, you know, I don't know what he was thinking, really, but, you know, by the time that he ended up confessing that to his wife and then telling the American people what had happened, it was like, that, I think, rocked people. We had had a meeting in thecabinet when this story first broke. A bunch of cabinet secretaries went out and defended him. I remember a few of them were particularly upset that, you know, they had kind of gone in front of the cameras and.
One of them was Bill Daley, I remember who went out there, Madeleine Albright.
Donna Shalala was particularly.
Oh, Shalala. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
She was particularly like, Why did you make me do that? But look, we got over it because I think fundamentally we came back to the point that I made earlier, which was this was really, you know, Gingrich was the speaker of the House. This was a fight for power. This was an exercise of them trying to tear him out, because he had bested them at every turn. He kept the country going in a progressive direction. They were trying to reverse that. You know, they hunted and hunted and hunted till they found something that they could grab on to. And so from our perspective, we were fighting not just for a president that would, that we admired, but we were fighting for the direction of the country. And I think we were, you know, happy to be in that battle and and happy to, in the end, ultimately secure his acquittal and and and move on. And that last year, you know, you think that would just drain all the energy from the presidency but that last year.
No, I bet you it was very cathartic, I'm sure.
Yeah. I mean I think everyone just doubled down on trying to get as much done as we could.
Yeah, and you guys did. Last question about this, because I think about this a lot. You know, we went through this MeToo period and so on, and obviously we just had a president who, the prior president who's now the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, who's, you know, been actually in a court of law, found to be guilty of, you know, harassment and abuse, who, you know, has a long history. But progressives are different. The Democratic Party is different. We went through this MeToo thing. Could he have survived politically in this era after MeToo and all of that? It seems unlikely to me.
Well, I guess, I can't speculate on that. I think that you kind of put your finger on it. You know, we went into this thing even after the story originally broke with his popularity had gone, going from the high fifties to the mid-sixties, remaining there through his end of his presidency. I think the American people, I don't think they were kind of forgiving of the personal behavior. They were just like understood that he was doing a great job for them. And whether in this environment, that would be the calculus that people used or whether they would view it differently, you know, I think it's hard to speculate. I think it's it would be a tougher road to hoe for sure now than it was then. And there was, it just it's just kind of hard to know, I guess.
The other thing that is noteworthy about your tenure, not just in that administration, but in succeeding Democratic administrations, you're like Talleyrand. You show up every, every epic.
I thought you were going to say Zelig.
Zelig was too passive, you're not a passive player. But you really have been a leader on this issue of environmental protection and on climate throughout your career in the federal government. You know, I read a quote from Bruce Babbitt who said, The hidden hand of John Podesta is involved in every environmental advancement accomplished in the Clinton and Obama administrations. And that's before your current job, which is obviously focused on that. And by the way, on your current job, it's your current job is senior adviser to the president for clean energy innovation and implementation, which has to be hard to get on a business card. But tell me how this kid from the Northwest side of Chicago ended up being such a passionate environmentalist and such passionate climate advocate?
Well, you know, it's yeah, I don't have a kind of that traditional, go around hunting and loving the outdoors. I mean, I grew up in a fairly gritty neighborhood, although we had.
Some, you know, somebody was sparked maybe more than 100 years ago in Chicago, and they and they preserved the banks along the Chicago River as forest preserves, and Cook County.
So I grew up, you know, playing and having fun in the woods and this and that. Now, there was, you know, probably hypodermic needles floating in the water. I once got in trouble for saying we went fishing in the Chicago River, but the fish had two heads, so you couldn't eat them. I got really in trouble with the Friends of the Chicago River.
Thanks, man. On behalf of the city, let me say, enough of that.
Well, the net result is I'm now a charter member of contributing to the Friends of the Chicago River, which is cleaned up and you can swim in. But, you know, it's not a traditional background. But I always loved the outdoors. I was, I'd love science as a kid. I was kind of into into those issues and then all that kind of came together. And I was a passionate advocate, to the Babbitt point, working with him on conservation, preserving more of these unbelievable spaces. I was with President Biden yesterday at the Grand Canyon. Just unbelievable. He created.
You were there. You were there, another another 900,000 acres preserved as national monument.
Yeah, the Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon. It's just, it's extremely important to the tribes. Twelve tribes came together in coalition there. But that has a deep history for Native American people. It's this spectacular place. We've now created a ring, in part because Clinton did Vermillion Cliffs, a monument up to the northwest, and Vermillion Cliffs in northeastern and Grand Canyon Parashsant out to northwest. So now there's a ring of protection around the Grand Canyon. I think that's some of the proudest work that I've done, to work with presidents who have the authority, that was a vision that President Teddy Roosevelt had in passing the Antiquities Act back in 1906, to be able to exercise executive authority to keep these places protected for future generations. And, you know, it's just been a thing with me, but it's then dovetailed with how much trouble the planet is under as a result of climate change. So I've become a major climate change advocate. I've spent, you know, the latter part of my career really working on that issue both in the NGO sector. I started the Center for American Progress. And then after I turned the reins of the think tank over to Neera Tanden, I really just focused on climate change. And then I worked for President Obama. And after the Hillary's campaign, I went back to CAP and worked on climate. And that's what I'm doing for the president, really trying to make sure that this tremendous investment that's happening as a result of his success in passing the clean energy investments in the Inflation Reduction Act are done well, implemented well, that the grants are going out the door, that people know how they can invest. And we're seeing just a tremendous effect of that in moving from dirty, polluting energy to clean energy. So I'm very proud of that work.
Look, I, you know, I very much embrace your side of this debate, but there is a debate. I find the debate kind of astonishing, because every time I turn on the news these days, I see, you know, among the top three stories are that there's catastrophic weather conditions, you know, extreme heat, storms, flooding, tornadoes. And, you know, so the predictions of what would happen when the planet warms are all being felt right now. Nature is giving us a, it's a trailer for future attractions. And yet there is tremendous resistance, largely from the energy sector and from a lot of Republican politicians primarily. Just yesterday, Mike Pence unveiled his energy plan, and it was essentially full speed ahead on on drilling and fossil fuel production and so on. And there's an audience for that among the American people. Do you believe that the things that you're doing now are inexorable, or are they subject to reversal based on who sits in that office?
Well, of course, who sits in that office is critical, you know.
For a lot of reasons. But I'm talking about this one.
Yeah, no, President Trump tried to reserve reverse all the work that President Obama had done. Fortunately, he wasn't able to do all that, because the court stopped him in many cases. But he tried. And the House Republicans voted unanimously. The House in both parties voted unanimously against the clean energy investments that were in the Inflation Reduction Act. The House has tried to repeal those on several occasions. They want to go backwards. It's really astounding, because the American people largely support these clean energy investments, whether it's solar or wind, electric vehicles. The one thing that's tremendous about the bill that the president was able to secure with only Democratic votes is it attacks climate in every sector: power, transportation, buildings, agriculture and forestry, industry. And I think the private sector is responding. We've got $250 billion of enormous investments in clean energy since the president took office, more than 240 billion since the IRA passed. I talk to CEOs all the time about their plans for developing clean energy. I'm with the president in in New Mexico is. As we're talking, he's about to go to a site of a place called Arcosa that's opening. That was a wind tower factory that operated in Illinois and Iowa and other places. They were laying people off. As a result of this bill, they're bringing people back. They're opening up a big plant here that will hire 250 people. There's a massive expansion of a solar plant that will be announced later this week in New Mexico. It's happening all across the country in red districts and blue. And yet these people continue to really be in a climate denial space. The Times did a piece over, The New York Times did a piece over the weekend, on something called Project 2025, which was the right wing think tank's plan to reverse the IRA, reverse all the climate regulation. And look at the suffering people are going through as a result of extreme weather. You think reality would catch up with them. But ideology, this MAGA ideology, this idea that this is somehow a cultural issue when you see the extreme heat, the extreme flooding is is like mind boggling, really.
But let me let me talk about that, because you're absolutely right. That one of the things that's happened to our politics is everything is being shoved into this cultural divide. And you see it, you know, the DeSantis campaign, such as it is, has very much been centered on that, including, you know, going after corporations who make environmental considerations part of their stated corporate strategy. I mean, he's, you know, won't do business with these corporations according to provisions that he's he's enacted in in in Florida, I think. But the bigger thing is this. I wonder if if proponents of climate action have made something of a mistake, which is, I think the same mistake that maybe was, you know, happened around issues like trade, which is basically to tell people this is something we have to do. It's important. And yeah, you've got you're making a good middle class living and you have for years and your parents before you and your grandparents before you extracting energy from the ground. And now you have to, for the good of the country, you have to do something else. And you tell me, well, you can make solar panels or you can build wind turbines, but those jobs don't necessarily pay what the jobs pay that they're getting. And like one example, John, is, you know, this resistance among the UAW about electric cars. We, 7% of people are driving electric cars. Now, the goal of that the president has set is, I think.
50 percent by 2030, which is seven years from now. There's a resistance among the UAW, because it takes less people to build electric cars and they're wary about wages. And there is a cultural piece, which is we don't want anybody telling us what to do. We don't want the government telling us what to do. We don't want the experts telling us what's good for us. I mean, we saw it on the vaccines. How do you penetrate that? And have has have advocates, and I'm on that side of the fight, but have advocates done a sufficient job of actually including people in these discussions and in the discussions of, how we should make these transitions?
Well, look, I think it's a great question, David, But and I think that if you look at what President Biden did both during the campaign and as president, he has focused on this very issue and this very problem and and argued that our path forward to deal with the climate crisis is to create an economy that's going to work for working people, for the, build the economy from the middle out and the bottom up. Create the kind of investment that's going to put people to work, including people without college degrees and good paying jobs, union jobs. He's been the most pro-union president in history, and I've worked for two pro-union presidents, but he is, thinks about it every day. And we're seeing the results of that. I was with him in South Carolina, where obstract, micro inverters for the solar industry invented in America, made in Romania, Mexico and China are coming back to the U.S., being made in the United States. It's true with with onshore wind that he's going to do today, with solar, with offshore wind. And I think one of the things that indicates that he gets this better than most is that the structure of this bill gives you a bonus for investing in those communities, those energy communities that have been the backbone of producing energy for our country for literally centuries. And so companies are managing to use the incentives in the tax code, as well as the provisions for grants, to be able to site these plants in places that have often seen jobs leave as a result of policy. We've reversed that, and we're seeing investments happening all over the country, and particularly in communities that are felt abandoned in the past.
Yeah, I think it's such an important question, because this cultural divide, you know, this issue of mandates and of science-driven changes enforced by government and so on, you know, it is a flare point. It is a flare point, and it needs to be navigated. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. I have to ask you about 2016. You. You left the Obama administration. You chaired the Hillary Clinton campaign. And I'm sure one of the values of you there was the peer to peer kind of relationship that you've been able to bring. One of the things that happened in that campaign, famously, was your emails became public, apparently purloined by the Russians and shared with WikiLeaks, who shared it with shared shared them with the world. Just wondering what you thought when you learned that that happened.
Well, you know, it's kind of a shot in the gut. Fortunately, I'm a relatively boring person, so it didn't reveal all that much. But it goes to show you the lengths that the Russians were. You know, I think it's been pretty well established that that that was an operation of Russian intelligence, the lengths they would go to to interfere in American democracy and the fact that the then candidate encouraged that tells you something about his character.
The then and now candidate.
The then and now candidate. But, you know, it was a it was a very, very tough campaign. And, you know, I think Secretary Clinton would have made a fabulous president.
She is honestly always. I mean, I was in the White House when she was secretary of state, and I know her pretty well. I watched her through the Senate years. She you know, government was the thing that she loved. I mean, doing the work of governing. And she was always better at that. You know, to be honest.
You know, I think, you know, that's the common perception, I guess. I think she was actually a pretty good candidate. She found her voice. We were trapped in a dynamic that I think then-candidate Biden got a little bit more out of, maybe it was partly because of Covid, but where Trump would say something outrageous and then if we didn't react to it, people, you know, the press was, well, why didn't you react to it? And if you did, you were kind of in in his story. And it was just it was vexing. He's sort of got reptilian talents, but he's, they, I guess.
Yeah, no, he's got a feral genius. I've said this for a long time. He knows how to, he absolutely knows how to control the narrative. And he and he's doing it now. The man is under in three indictments with a fourth apparently coming down the chute. And he is, you know, manipulating the environment and using those to his advantage, at least in the short run.
And it is it is something something, you know.
Well, I'm a federal employee again, so I can't go talk about.
2024. But I think if you go back to 2016, I think the the press kind of covered that in a way that I think they probably have to reflect on. And it was a phenomena that they hadn't experienced, and they were getting good ratings off of it. But it is a challenging thing. But the net result has been to create that division in the country, that kind of MAGA sensibility that that we talked about earlier.
Yeah. I just want to clarify one thing I said. Like, I've known Hillary Clinton for a long time, not nearly as well as you. And so many times you hear about people, gee, I wish people could see her the way or see him the way they are when they're not in front of a camera, when they're not. You know what I mean? And, you know, she is a, she she is a funny, brilliant, you know, and warm person. And somehow that was not as communicated as much because she was, after 30 years of combat, you know, I think was a little reserved about kind of putting herself out there in that way.
I think there's some reality there. And I think, look, women are treated really differently in politics.
Yeah, absolutely. That that is, that is, there's no doubt about it. Hopefully that's changing. I think it is changing. So what was it like the night that you, I mean, it was surreal to be sitting on a television set and on the set of a television network as these results came in. How much were you worried about that outcome? How much did you anticipate it, and how much of it was a surprise? And how did you process that when the news came in?
Well, first of all, we thought this was a real race all the way along. We thought we had bested him. Then Jim Comey does his thing. We saw, you know, that, ten days out and reopens the investigation. My view interferes in the election. That caused us to sink again. We thought we had sort of come back. So I think we went into election night nervous but feeling like we were going to win. And then when we didn't, when those states came up short, it was devastating, to say the least. But I also had a role and responsibility to kind of suck it up and basically accept that and try to rally our staff and her supporters in the idea that we have a democratic system. It can be flawed. We have a Electoral College that's questionable, but we accept the results of elections. And so, you know, I kind of famously, I guess, went to the scene of what was our victory night reception and had to tell people to go home. But that was one of the hardest things I probably ever had to do in my life.
No. Well, I had been talking to her all evening, I was at the suite with her. And I think telling her that we had come up short was maybe, maybe that was the toughest thing I've ever had to do in my life. But, you know, you just have to go into a different gear and say, you know, I've got to hold it together and and do that. But I was, you know, wanting to be balling like everybody else. But I you know, I just. I just, I had a job to do that I couldn't do that.
You talked at the beginning about what attracted you to public life. I deal with young people all the time at my Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, where you you need to come some time, and elsewhere. And you know, I do it because they inspire me. But I want to know what you tell them. Young people like them who have seen so much turmoil in the last 20 years, from the war in Iraq to the financial crisis to the pandemic, the the the upheaval of the Trump years, they want to change the world. How do you persuade them that this is the way to do it?
Well, I, you know, I am not someone who I think believes it's my job to persuade them. I just can give them a a a sense that they can matter. And I see that all around me. I've felt it in my career. I've felt like showing up makes a difference, that you do make judgments in government that change people's lives, that give them health insurance, that give them a boost on the minimum wage, that can that can create a fairer tax system. Do the land protection we talked about, tackle the climate crisis. I'm watching these investments happening. If you get in and you try, you can make things different. And if you leave it to the other guys, it's not going to go very well. So you got a choice. And I think it's an honorable career to be in in public service and one that, you know, the rewards are not so much economic as they are that you know that you're serving your community and society. And that is very, very fulfilling. And so I, that's what I tell them. But it's always their choice. I think. I see more and more people who, you know, there was an argument maybe a couple of years ago that, well, you could do more in tech or you could do more in in non-profits or whatever. Why go into government? Government seem sort of stale and resistant. I think that's shifted a little bit as this, as the choice has become starker between a government that's going to work for people and work for a cleaner and healthier environment, work for the future, versus one that's going to be built on hate, division and fear. And so I think people are a little bit more motivated to get engaged in politics again. Maybe that's where I started. Maybe, you know, I say I say that I gave. I was off to a retirement, so I gave my house to my son, so now I'm sleeping in my friend's basement. I, I, I sometimes joke that I started my career sleeping on a couch and I'm ending my political career sleeping on a couch. But but, but the, you know, the same thing is true. That passion for saying, oh my God, we can't let things go this way, is coming back in this current context. And maybe that's the hope for the future, because I think actually our views do represent a majority of the American people. There's still good people in the middle and they're persuadable. And I think, you know, we just had a referendum in Ohio yesterday, and it shows the power that the public can exercise when they get out and vote.
It is a beautiful thing when people grab that wheel of history and turn it in in in the right direction. And that is the power of democracy, as as challenged and as difficult as it is. But listen, you said it's an opp, to these young people, you can do things that matter. You've mattered, John, and you've mattered for a long, long time. And when people look back on your career, that's going to be your epitaph. And it's a it's a really proud one. So I am really happy to have you and always great to talk with you and look forward to future conversations.
Appreciate it, David. Look forward to coming to Chicago.
We're going to hold you to that.
Thank you for listening to the Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Finder Annenberg. The show is also produced by Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald And special thanks to our partners at CNN. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics, dot uChicago, dot edu.