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CAP Faces Challenges as Podesta Steps Back

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo

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.

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