Should Gene Sperling Be Advising Obama on the Economy?

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President Obama is expected to tap Gene Sperling, a Treasury official, as his top economic policy adviser in the White House on Friday. The announcement would coincide with the release of December's jobs numbers and with other shakeups in the president's economic team. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker announced late Wednesday that he will step down as an economic adviser.

Sperling would replace Larry Summers as the director of the National Economic Council, a position he held during the Clinton administration.

Over the last couple weeks, as speculation about Sperling's candidacy has mounted, commentators have been poring over Sperling's background and evaluating his qualifications:

  • Obama Thinks Sterling Ideal for Period of Divided Government, state Jeff Zeleny and Jackie Calmes at The New York Times: "Under Mr. Clinton, Mr. Sperling worked on budget, tax and trade policies when Republicans controlled the House and Senate ... Administration officials say Mr. Sperling's chances for the job were all but sealed last month, when he played a lead role in the tax cuts compromise that Mr. Obama reached with Republicans in Congress's lame-duck session.
  • What's Sperling's Ideology ... And Why Does He Have an IMDB Page? asks David Leonhardt at The New York Times: "Sperling falls between centrist and liberal Democrat," he explains, adding that Sperling is to the left of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Leonhardt also notes that Sperling worked as a consultant for the television show The West Wing, "making him the rare White House aide with an IMDB page."
  • Sperling's Sympathies Toward Wall Street Should Disqualify Him, argues William Alden at The Huffington Post. He explains that Sperling was NEC director when Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had long separated investment and commercial banking, while making millions on Wall Street in the throes of the financial crisis (earning, for example, $887,727 in 2008 from Goldman Sachs for his advice on a charitable projec):

By appointing Sperling, the president would fuel perceptions that his administration is overly close to Wall Street, installing a policymaker who has not only overseen monumental deregulation of the financial sector, but has also collected hefty paychecks from its leading firms.

  • Sperling Was Doing Charity Work for Goldman! retorts David Corn at Mother Jones. The project Sperling worked on was designed to educate women in poor countries, Corn points out. In addition, after leaving the Clinton administration, Sperling founded and led the Center for Universal Education, published and convened seminars on how the world's wealthy could address poverty in developing nations, and developed a program with actress Angelina Jolie to equip children in conflict regions with education:

As a former NEC director, [Sperling] was in great spot to cash in. And he received the same career advice from all of [his] counselors: go to Wall Street for the next eight years, make millions, and then return to public service (when there might be a Democratic president). He didn't follow this guidance. Instead, Sperling devoted most of his time to addressing the challenge of global poverty.

  • I'm Sick of 'Main Street Puritanism,' complains Jacob Weisberg at Slate.

Sperling is an economic populist whose views are diametrically opposed to Wall Street's. (He pressed, for instance, for the banks to pay a huge, multibillion-dollar fee for the TARP bailout.) ...

The shifting, impossible-to-refute charges against anyone with Wall Street ties amount to what has become a kind of Green Scare: Because Wall Street is tainted, anyone who had any connection with it--including, in Geithner's case, proximity as a regulator--is deemed unfit to serve the public. I suppose that in a perfect world, officials would be members of a flagellant order, coming to Washington from their monastic cells and reaffirming their vows of poverty afterward. But that wouldn't work, either, because economic policymakers would have no feel for markets, business, or life in the real world. We should demand ethical behavior, not public servants untainted by money or any effort to make it.

  • Wall Street Work Doesn't Automatically Give You Feel For Economy, adds Felix Salmon at Reuters: "Bankers tend to live in a highly distorted reality where the outrageous is accepted as a normal and ethical way of conducting business: insofar as working on Wall Street does give people a feel for how business is conducted, it can give people a very distorted impression indeed."

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