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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Center at the Center of it All

Air Date: Week of November 21, 2008

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John Podesta. (Courtesy of the Center for American Progress)

Personnel from the Washington think tank Center for American Progress are now key players in the Obama transition team. And that’s a sign that climate change and clean energy will be high on the agenda for the new administration’s staff and cabinet. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young takes us inside the Center at the center of Obama's team.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Barack Obama’s position on climate change is also evident in the people he picked for his transition team. Several key members of the team have ties to a Washington, D.C. think tank called The Center for American Progress, or CAP. John Podesta, co-chair of Obama’s transition team, founded CAP, where he put climate change and clean energy at the forefront of its agenda. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young takes us inside the Center for American Progress.

YOUNG: In the long years that conservatives ruled Washington, liberals watched right-leaning think tanks like the Heritage Foundation with envy. Heritage dominated the national political agenda with new ideas and catchy talking points. Liberals had little to match it. So former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff John Podesta started the Center for American Progress to help progressives get their mojo back. CAP senior fellow Bracken Hendricks says Podesta essentially stole a page from the conservative’s playbook.

HENDRICKS: It’s much more similar to strategy that the conservatives and the right wing have used for a very long time. We are focused not only on good ideas, but on communicating those ideas.

YOUNG: With funding from financier George Soros and real estate billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler, CAP started small in 2003. Now its 180 employees and fellows run a sophisticated communications operation from a 10th-floor suite in downtown D.C. They turn out studies on the economy and national security that frame progressive ideas in positive terms of growth and strength. Hendricks focuses on energy and global warming, issues which were quickly integrated into CAP’s larger message. Instead of fighting the old economy-versus-environment battle, Hendricks says CAP emphasizes the potential to benefit both.

  


Bracken Hendricks. (Courtesy of the Center for American Progress)

HENDRICKS: Really climate change is at the center of everything we do here it’s a fundamental piece of where we need to go. We’re trying to govern for the long term, we’re trying to take care of public good and human needs. You can’t do that unless we get on a path to a low carbon economy.

YOUNG: A CAP study argues that clean energy investment can generate green jobs and stimulate the economy. It shows a 100 billion dollar investment would yield two million jobs, reduce greenhouse gases and keep wealth in the country rather than losing it to oil-rich nations.

HENDRICKS: The green sector – the energy sector, this investment in physical infrastructure that’s been so neglected - it turns out is a tremendous place to start priming the pump of the American economy, and, importantly it moves us in the direction we need to go.

YOUNG: The study gained traction with lawmakers who are crafting a new economic stimulus package. CAP founder Podesta emphasized green stimulus in his testimony this year before a Congressional committee on global warming.

PODESTA: The challenge I think we face as a nation and as a world is nothing short of conversion of our economy from high carbon energy, putting our national security and planet health at risk, to one based on low carbon sustainable sources of energy. The scale of that undertaking is immense but its potential is also enormous. I think the jobs of the future are clearly on the clean energy side.

YOUNG: Now Podesta takes that message to one of the most influential positions in Washington. President-elect barrack Obama picked Podesta to lead his transition, overseeing selection of the people who will fill the Obama cabinet and staff the White House. Several other CAP fellows are also on the transition team. Former EPA official Bob Sussman will help select the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Former Clinton Administration climate policy director Todd Stern will help organize the new White House team. Among his ideas: a new White House energy council to emphasize clean energy.

John Podesta.(Courtesy of the Center for American Progress)

  

CAP fellow and economist Laura Tyson, who promotes economic recovery through green jobs, is now an Obama economic advisor. And CAP distinguished fellow and former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle was just tapped as Obama’s health and human services secretary.

Academics who think about think tanks say that’s an impressive list. City College of New York political science professor Andrew Rich wrote a book called “Think Tanks, Public Policy and the Politics of Expertise.”

RICH: Beyond the people, what about the ideas? Will the ideas that CAP has been talking about for the past few years, will they get a serious hearing in the new administration? I think there’s reason to be optimistic that they will be, but we’ll have to wait and see.

YOUNG: Rich says a 650-page book CAP released shortly after the election, “A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President,” shows the group is eager to help shape the new administration. But CAP action fund spokesperson Daniella Gibbs Leger plays down
the center’s influence.

GIBBS LEGER: Well, I should clarify that there is no official link between the work that CAP does and the Obama transition.

YOUNG: I read in some political blogs and whatnot, and when there is a reference to CAP it will be followed by a phrase like, “the shadow government,” “the government in waiting.” What do you make of that?

GIBBS LEGER: Well that is often what we’ve been called for the past couple of years. Progressives have been out of power for a while. So, it remains to be seen how many of our ideas will be implemented by the new administration but we’ll definitely - gonna be pushing them to do so.

YOUNG: Gibbs Leger is coy about CAP’s newfound prominence. But there is one victory she’s not too shy to brag about. On the center’s reception desk stands a huge trophy. CAP won the think tank softball league championship – yes, such a thing exists in Washington. And they won it by defeating their ideological nemesis, the conservative Heritage Foundation.

GIBBS LEGER: Yeah, we ran with that! [Laughs] That’s a very good symbol.

YOUNG: For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

 

Links

Who’s leading the Obama transition on environment

Center for American Progress ideas on a “green” economic stimulus

“Progressive Blueprint” for the new president

 

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