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Yahoo Finance Presents: John Podesta

Former White House Chief of staff John Podesta sat down with Yahoo Finance's Rick Newman to preview the first days of the Biden administration, the focus on climate change to come from across new administration and what the President-elect should do about Trump

Video Transcript

RICK NEWMAN: Welcome to "Yahoo Finance Presents," I'm Rick Newman. Talking with us today is John Podesta. He's the founder of the Center for American Progress think tank and a former senior aide to two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. John Podesta, thanks for joining us.

JOHN PODESTA: Nice to be with you, Rick.

RICK NEWMAN: Joe Biden's first big legislative effort is a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan-- that's a lot of money. You think he's going to get most of that?

JOHN PODESTA: I think he's likely to get most of it. I guess I would describe it as a relief plan, not a stimulus plan, because I think he's coming forward with another bill shortly thereafter which will make good on the investments that he argued for during the course of the campaign. But this bill is really intended.

He's got these inner-laced crises-- from COVID, the economic crisis that resulted from that, a racial justice, crisis as well as a climate crisis that he's recognized. And I think this first component is really aimed at trying to put a tourniquet on the place we are right now with the virus raging and trying to get the money in the places that are needed to get the virus under control, to provide some relief for people, to provide some protection for renters, for example, to provide relief to student borrowers who can't make their payments right now because they may be out of work.

So I think this is really more of what we've seen in the past, both last March and in December. And then I think he's going to come forward with another package that will, as I said, make those big investments in infrastructure. Is he going to get it? I think so. I think most Democrats support what he wants to do, including, you know, raising the payments from $600 to $2,000, extending unemployment compensation.

People know that, just given the level of spread of the virus, the high numbers of deaths, the pressure on health systems on states that we need to do more. So I think he'll get the support of Democrats. They may try to do it through budget reconciliation, which requires only a majority vote. He still, I think, remains hopeful of getting some Republicans to join with him on this.

RICK NEWMAN: Let me ask you about getting some bipartisan support here. What do you think are the sticking points for Republicans? I mean, he would need I guess 9 or 10 votes Republican votes to get this passed with a 60-vote supermajority. What's going to be the hard part getting Republicans to go along with this?

JOHN PODESTA: Well, you know, probably more than that have already endorsed raising the payments. McConnell blocked that at the end of December-- from $600 to $2,000. I think that there's a fair amount of money in there for relief for first responders, for state and local government-- $130 billion to open schools. That's been more resisted, particularly in the Senate by Senate Republicans.

He's called for raising the minimum wage in this package. It's unclear where the Republicans are on that boat. My suspicion is most of them will be against that. But I think that-- we just saw Florida raise the minimum wage by ballot initiative. You know, even in a state that Donald Trump won, the voters voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. So it may be that Republicans could go along with that.

I remember the last time the minimum wage was raised in 2004, Florida had raising the minimum wage on their ballot. That passed. That kind of triggered, you know, less resistance from President Bush and from Republicans in the Senate. And the federal minimum wage was raised at that time. Now, it hasn't been raised since. So we haven't seen a raise in the minimum wage since 2009, the last segment of the minimum wage kicked in.

So it may be that there will be support for that. I think time will tell. It sort of also depends on the phase-in. I think people will raise questions about whether to do it right now-- although I think there's been no real evidence that raising minimum wage should result much-- any job loss. It actually adds to aggregate demand. So it probably would be a boost for the economy.

RICK NEWMAN: What do you think the Republican approach is going to be in the Senate? Do you think it's just going to go back to the sort of obstructionism we saw during basically 3/4 of the Obama presidency? Or could there be more reason to expect a little bit of bipartisanship?

JOHN PODESTA: You know, I think it really is going to depend on how they interpret what happened on January 6. If they kind of fall back into--

RICK NEWMAN: That's the Capitol riots you're talking about.

JOHN PODESTA: Capitol riot and you know, the insurrection, really, that was really, I think, boosted by a couple of senators-- Josh Hawley in particular, Ted Cruz. And I think the Republicans are reflecting on, what is their party stand for now? Does it stand for, you know, people rioting in the United States Capitol, denying democratic reality? If they are worried about that, then maybe they will want to try to find some ways to look like a normal party and try to find some ideas that they could share with Biden.

I think one place-- you know, I mentioned that they're going to come back with another substantial package really aimed at transforming the energy sector-- the so-called build back better strategy that Biden talked about in the campaign-- that may be a place where Republicans could find common ground to try to push forward with big investments on green infrastructure, on transforming and supporting the buildout of more renewable power.

You know, there's Republican support for that, and there's very, very strong public support for that. There was just a poll out last week by the people who are viewed as kind of a gold standard on this, Yale University, in conjunction with George Mason University in Virginia, have been the experts on public opinion on clean energy, et cetera-- very, very strong support, upwards of 80% support for build out of more renewable energy, including things like offshore wind as well as more traditional renewables like solar and onshore wind.

Big support for Biden's goals of having a net zero economy by 2050-- so I mean, I think if you look at attitudes of young Republicans in particular, the Republican Party needs to get off this climate denial pathway. And that may be a place where they can collaborate. I think there might be some things they want in a package like that. But that's what give and take used to be like in Congress that I remember. Even when Clinton was being impeached, we still got stuff done with a Republican Congress, and it led to good results for the economy.

RICK NEWMAN: So Biden is likely to start doing things right away through executive action on climate that could affect, obviously, regulation, perhaps mileage standards for cars, things like that. What do you expect to be the big components of legislation on climate policy?

JOHN PODESTA: You mentioned a couple-- I think he'll rejoin Paris day one. That requires him to then-- triggers a requirement that the US government will have to update its nationally determined commitment. But I think they've signaled an all of government approach, certainly that he's pushing towards movement for more efficient and more electrified transportation. Sector I think they will get back and restore the-- clarify that the authority of the state of California to set its own standards, maybe embrace the standards that California worked out for the 2025 fuel efficiency standards.

Beyond that, I think they'll push towards more electrification in the second half of the decade. The auto companies seem to be on board with that. Their investment strategy looks to that. But they've put forward proposals, and they'll use the executive authority to really go after every sector-- power, transportation, housing, buildings.

The Congress on a bipartisan basis just passed a very important climate-related bill as part of the omnibus to phase down hydrofluorocarbons of the chemicals used in refrigeration which are super-pollutants when it comes to global warming. And so they'll use that authority that is vested in the Environmental Protection Agency to begin phase-down of those dangerous chemicals.

That's really critical from a climate perspective. I think they'll go after methane again. That was happening at the end of Obama. Trump reversed all that. I think there's a big job in reversing the damage that Trump has done. But methane, both on public lands, but as well as trying to provide better standards, particularly in the oil and gas development industry, I think is certainly on the table.

And then I think they'll begin to change the leasing policies and move public lands from essentially a major source of production of fossil fuels to a major source of production of renewable energy. I think that's all in the cards. But I think every part of the government will be called upon to do its part.

And you know, big energy users like the Department of Defense, the obscure agencies like the General Services Administration that manage public buildings to try to move towards net zero buildings by 2030, you know, a 100% clean power sector by 2035, rapidly change out the infrastructure that will support vast production and deployment of electric vehicles.

RICK NEWMAN: That's a lot.

JOHN PODESTA: Look, they got a big job.

RICK NEWMAN: Yeah.

JOHN PODESTA: No one's kind of come into-- perhaps you have to go back to Franklin Roosevelt to think about someone who's come in to office with as much crisis as Biden faces.

RICK NEWMAN: You mentioned a moment ago this identity crisis in the Republican Party. Is this an opportunity for Democrats to gain market share, if you will-- whether it might be corporate donors-- we've seen some big companies say they are reconsidering donations to Republican candidates-- or just in terms of sort of mindshare of voters?

JOHN PODESTA: Well, you know, the country's pretty evenly split, but the Democrats have a majority. They've won the popular vote in five of the last six elections. But I think that they still have a job to do to sell the-- you know, if you look at the sort of political economy of the country, they have a job to do to sell people on the fact that they will build a more stable, better economy for the middle class and working people.

And that is something that I think Biden tried to really focus on in the campaign, I think his administration will really focus on. And I think if he can do that, and particularly if at least a big segment of the Republican Party stays enthralled with these conspiracy theories and sort of Trumpism, I think the Republican Party has the potential to kind of split apart.

Because I think, you know, you look at people like Mike DeWine or Larry Hogan or something, they're not going to live in a party that's defined by lies and conspiracy. And so they're going to have to find a home. And yet you see their grip that Trump and that far right white nationalist segment holds on the Republican Party-- you saw that in the vote, really, after the riot in the Capitol-- the fact that you know more than 140 Republican congressmen still voted to overturn the election results.

RICK NEWMAN: One of the trickiest issues for Biden is what to do about Trump. So some people think he should be investigated for possible crimes-- obstruction of justice and other things. But there are reasons not to do that-- you might end up making a martyr out of him, for example, and Biden wants to focus on his agenda. So he's going to start office with you know with the conviction trial-- the impeachment trial in the Senate. What should Joe Biden do about Trump-- just leave him alone?

JOHN PODESTA: Look, I think-- I kind of think he should do what he's done over the last couple of weeks, which is stay focused on his job and let the rest take care of itself. I think that with respect to the impeachment, no one wanted a second impeachment. But no one expected the incitement of an insurrection. So it's going to have to play out. And that's a job for the Senate.

I think Biden and Harris have stayed remarkably focused on their job-- COVID, the economy, racial justice, immigration. And so that's exactly what they should do kind of going into this. I think one of the things that Biden has really made clear-- and the selection of Merrick Garland to be attorney general I think underscores this-- is he wants to be hands-off with respect to the Justice Department, do exactly the opposite of what Trump did, not reach in and direct the Department to do what he wants, but to be really the people's lawyer and sort of do what's right, what's just, what's fair, let the facts lead to what the conclusions are.

You know, Trump's still in trouble with the attorney general in New York and with the Manhattan DA over his business practices that predate his presidency. So they'll play that out. We'll see what happens. But I think Biden should be hands-off when it comes to the administration of justice, particularly to his predecessor. And I think let the professionals do their job. Let the chips fall where they may. And stay focused on the big tasks ahead-- the economy, COVID, climate, racial justice.

RICK NEWMAN: A lot going on, a lot to talk about-- John Podesta, we'd love to have you back to talk about more of this. John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress, Thanks for your time.

JOHN PODESTA: Good to be with you, Rick.