Podesta previously served as Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton and Counselor to President Barack Obama. He is the former president and now Chair and Counselor of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., and is also a Visiting Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was a co-chairman of the Obama-Biden Transition Project.
Podesta spent most of his early years in Chicago, where he was born, growing up in the neighborhood of Jefferson Park on the city's Northwest Side. His mother, Mary (née Kokoris), was Greek-American, and his father, John David Podesta, Sr., was Italian-American. Tony Podesta, a lobbyist, is his brother. Podesta's father did not graduate from high school, but encouraged Podesta to attend college.
In 1967, Podesta graduated from Lane Tech High School in Chicago. In 1971, he graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he had served as a volunteer for the presidential candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. He received his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in 1976. Podesta worked as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice's Honors Program in the Land and Natural Resources Division (1976–77), and as a Special Assistant to the Director of ACTION, the Federal volunteer agency (1978–1979). His political career began in 1972, when he worked for George McGovern's presidential campaign, which lost in 49 states.
Podesta held positions on Capitol Hill, including Counselor to Democratic Leader Senator Thomas Daschle (1995–1996); Chief Counsel for the Senate Agriculture Committee (1987–1988); Chief Minority Counsel for the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks; Security and Terrorism; and Regulatory Reform; and Counsel on the Majority Staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee (1979–1981). In 1988, he and his brother Tony co-founded Podesta Associates, Inc., a Washington, D.C., "government relations and public affairs" lobbying firm. Now known as the Podesta Group, the firm "has close ties to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration [and] has been retained by some of the biggest corporations in the country, including Wal-Mart, BP and Lockheed Martin."
The Clinton years
Podesta served as both an Assistant to the President and as Deputy Chief of Staff. Earlier, from January 1993 to 1995, he was Assistant to the President, Staff Secretary and a senior policy adviser on government information, privacy, telecommunications security and regulatory policy. In 1998 he became President Clinton's Chief of Staff in the second Clinton Administration and executed the position until the end of Clinton's time in office in January 2001. Podesta encouraged Executive Order 12958 which led to efforts to declassify millions of pages from the U.S. diplomatic and national security history.
Podesta founded and is currently Chair of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., and Counselor to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. In addition to his work at American Progress, Podesta is currently a Visiting Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, his alma mater, where he has taught classes on Congressional investigations and technology law and policy. He is a member of the Constitution Project's bipartisan Liberty and Security Committee.
In 2008, Podesta authored his book The Power of Progress: How America's Progressives Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate, and Our Country. In 2009, he accompanied former President Clinton to North Korea for negotiations securing the release of two American journalists imprisoned on espionage charges. He can be seen in numerous widely circulated photographs of Clinton meeting with Kim Jong-il.
Podesta has supported petitions by some of those who believe UFOs are alien spacecraft to the government to release files related to the subject. At a 2002 news conference organized by Coalition for Freedom of Information Podesta stated that, "It is time for the government to declassify records that are more than 25 years old and to provide scientists with data that will assist in determining the real nature of this phenomenon".
Podesta became an Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society in March 2006. Podesta is an emiritus member of the Knox College Board of Trustees. Currently, Podesta is the U.S. representative to the UN High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
In 2013, Podesta was paid $87,000 as a consultant by Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, who lobbies to prevent energy exploration on American land. Podesta has been described as "the driving force inside the White House to block 12 million acres of land in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling … [he] emerged as one of the architects of the new White House policy that seeks to end any future drilling for oil on Alaska's coastal plain." Wyss has donated at least $4 million to Podesta's Center for American Progress (CAP), and holds a seat on its Board. Podesta worked at Wyss's HJW Foundation in 2013 and joined the White House in January 2014. Federal conflict of interest rules overseen by the Office of Government Ethics also instruct political appointees to "not work on any matter" if the work of their previous employer "would raise a question regarding the employee's impartiality". The law applies to White House officials and it is not known if Podesta ever sought or received a waiver. A 2013 article in The Nation named CAP as being "among the most secretive of all think tanks concerning its donors." 2013 tax documents from the HJW Foundation and the Wyss Foundation show that Wyss contributed $1.5 million to CAP in that year alone.
Podesta is married to Mary S. Podesta, a Washington, D.C. attorney. They have three children.