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CAP Faces Challenges as Podesta Steps Back

The mission of the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C.’s most influential liberal think tank, is unlikely to change when John Podesta, its founder and CEO, steps down Nov. 1, but some Democrats worry the group’s star power might fade.

In Democratic circles, there is no shortage of praise for Neera Tanden, CAP’s president-in-waiting. But her behind-the-scenes demeanor, which allowed her to keep a low profile outside the Beltway even as she held some of Washington’s most influential positions, could be a detriment in her new role, where swagger and donor appeal are critical traits.

“She’s just not Podesta,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “I think the best days of CAP are behind them. … Between the Obama brand going down, the recession and [Podesta’s] lack of involvement, I think the corporate dollars are going to be very hard to come by.”

“When Podesta speaks, everybody listens, and it is going to take Neera some time to develop that gravitas,” a Democratic communications consultant and former Hill staffer told Roll Call. “The loss of John is significant … he’s kind of like the lifeblood of the place.”

Doug Thornell, a former aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) who is now at the political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, calls Podesta “the Steve Jobs of Democratic politics.”

That’s a tough act to follow, but Jennifer Palmieri, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the organization’s sister advocacy nonprofit, rejects any notion Tanden is not up for it.

“Anyone who says that doesn’t know Neera Tanden,” she said, adding that Podesta will still do events for the advocacy and educational arms of the organization.

Democrats look to Tanden as a kind of generational bridge — a former aide in both the Clinton and Obama administrations with a hard-knock upbringing and a fierce commitment to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. She helped craft the law as a senior adviser for health care reform at the Department of Health and Human Services and now sits on the board of a nonprofit, Know Your Care/Protect Your Care, that is dedicated to defending the law against Republican attacks.

Podesta will remain as chairman of the CAP board, a nonexecutive position, while stepping back from the daily activities of the organization. In a note to CAP employees Monday he said he would remain involved in fundraising, but it is not clear to what extent. Several Democratic lobbyists, who refused to be identified because they were not at liberty to discuss client deliberations, said corporate donors are beginning to question whether to support the group because it seems to be losing clout.

“By pulling out of the day-to-day, I will be able to pursue two parallel objectives,” Podesta wrote. “Inside CAP, I intend to use this greater time and latitude to play an instrumental role in planning CAP’s strategic growth, increasing our financial support, and drawing new initiatives into the organization. On the outside, I will continue teaching as a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center and working part-time as an uncompensated senior advisor at the State Department.”

Podesta began advising Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on foreign policy issues last month, a State Department official told Foreign Policy magazine.

The transition in leadership at CAP had been in the works for several months and was timed so the organization could begin the election year with the new team in place and with a whole year to prepare policy ideas for the next Congress.

“I consider Neera the best and the brightest coming out of the Clinton world. She has a very clear perspective of all the issues,” said Jimmy Ryan, a former chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) now at the lobbying firm Elmendorf Ryan. “In the absence of great new ideas, it’s important to have groups out there that are focusing not on campaigns but on pulling together policy ideas.”

Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff, founded CAP in 2003. The think tank served as an unofficial Democratic policy headquarters during the George W. Bush years and later became an ally of the Obama administration.

He led Obama’s White House transition team, and when the new president took office, about one-third of CAP’s staff flocked to the administration, including Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, and Gayle Smith, senior director at the National Security Council.

Still, some Democratic lobbyists remain impressed by the talent the organization has been able to attract and keep.

“A lot of people thought that CAP was going to disappear when Democrats reclaimed the White House,” one such lobbyist noted. “They are still here.”

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