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White House / WHITE HOUSE

Obama Unveils New Economic Team

Sperling leads a team of experienced centrist wonks. Furman stays. Higginbottom moves to OMB.

President Obama points to Gene Sperling, as he nominates him as director of the National Economic Council.(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Marc Ambinder
January 7, 2011

Updated at 2:55 p.m. on January 7.

President Obama unveiled a slate of new advisers to an audience at a green home improvement company in Landover, Md., bracketing the release of encouraging job numbers from December.

"We’ve got a big hole that we’re digging ourselves out of," Obama said. "So our mission has got to be to accelerate hiring and accelerate growth and that depends on making our economy competitive so that we’re fostering new jobs and industries and training workers to fill them.”

 

Referring to Sperling, Obama said: "Few people bring the level of intelligence and sheer work ethic that Gene brings to every assignment he’s ever taken, and few do so with such decency and integrity.”

Obama hailed the other appointments, most of them veterans of the partisan economic fights of the 1990s.

Gene Sperling, 52, will be director of the National Economic Council, reprising a role he played during the boom years of the Clinton administration. His principal deputy will be Jason Furman, also a Clinton-era economist and currently an NEC deputy. Obama will add Katharine G. Abraham, a professor at the University of Maryland, to his Council of Economic Advisors, and he will promote Heather Higginbottom, a deputy on his domestic policy council, to deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The indefatigable Sperling was a fierce advocate for some of Obama's controversial interventionist policies early in his term, including the $85 billion auto bailout. His role, detailed in a book by another participant in the bailout, included his warning that "it's over for Detroit" if the administration failed to proceed, an outburst that helped persuade Obama to include Chrysler in the bailout. The Treasury Department announced in December it would recoup all but $9 billion of the money it shelled out to the companies.

Sperling is famous for his long hours, especially during the Clinton administration, where he was known for pulling all-nighters and living like a medical resident. He once chirped: "Vending machine food is underrated," a reference to the kinds of grim nocturnal meals he was known to eat.

In the Obama era, the White House credits Sperling with the proposal to reduce by 2 percentage points the payroll tax as a stimulus measure to be included in the president’s tax-cut deal with Republicans. Some liberal Democrats view that measure as evidence that Sperling is cavalier about the sanctity of the Social Security program and circulated articles last night pointing to his 2005 support for the idea of adding a private account option alongside the guaranteed benefit.

Sperling holds a juris doctorate from Yale Law School and does not have a Ph.D. in economics. He served as NEC director when President Clinton had to govern with a Republican Congress. Earlier in his career, he helped craft Clinton’s 1993 stimulus package, which included a rise in marginal tax rates for the rich. He had a hand in most other notable Clinton-era policies, including a trade agreement with China, but was a peripheral player in some, including the relaxing of banking regulations.

After Democrats left power, Sperling spent time in the private and nonprofit sectors. Goldman Sachs hired him to run one of its charities. He is also the author of a book on how to educate women in the developing world. Before joining the Treasury Department as a counselor to Secretary Timothy Geithner, Sperling, like many Clinton administration officials, served as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Administration officials have asked Sperling’s liberal friends to raise their voices in defense of his progressive bona fides. They note Sperling’s generally populist portrayal in Bob Woodward’s account of Clinton’s economic policy debates. More recently, they credit Sperling for being an internal advocate for a tax on bank profits -- he lost that fight -- and the prime mover behind a successful Treasury proposal to recoup more money from banks and companies lent money from the TARP program and other bailouts.

Furman, young-looking, owlish, and self-deprecating, will also given a new title: assistant to the president for economic policy, granting him the privilege of walk-in access to the Oval Office. Liberals have been suspicious of Furman since his days at the Brookings Institute, where he served as senior adviser to the Hamilton Project, launched by Robert Rubin to provide a platform for fiscal centrists in the Democratic Party.

Abraham’s specialty is population and developmental economics. She was the commissioner for the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the Clinton administration. Higginbottom was Obama’s campaign policy director and was a legislative director to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

As important as the names are, the White House is also tightening the bolts on its job policy engine. Obama plans to bring into the White House a senior adviser to help reorient the NEC's focus to reviving the manufacturing sector, which employs less than 10 percent of Americans but has been unusually and perhaps permanently damaged by the recession and global economic transformation.

Obama used his Maryland visit to promote exports. Boosting employment in that sector could help Obama politically in the Rust Belt, where an especially large number of voters upset about Democratic economic policies vented their frustrations in the November elections and where white, non-college educated voters have abandoned the president in droves for the Republicans.

Today’s announcement did not include details about a new role for Ron Bloom, a key architect of the auto bailout and the chief liaison to Detroit and the manufacturing sector. Despite his omission today, Bloom's portfolio is set to be expanded, as will his access to the president, as will his small staff, as will his public presence. He will supervise several disparate manufacturing policy shops and report directly to Sperling and incoming chief of staff William Daley. Bloom, respected by both labor and industry, was a top steelworkers union official and also an investment banker.

CORRECTION: The original version of this report misspelled the name of Heather Higginbottom and misstated Gene Sperling's age.

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