After college, Bernstein became a social worker in East Harlem. His first case was a single mother frantic to get her son, who had asthma, on Medicaid. “She was practically in tears when she got the [Medicaid] card,” he said. “The only poor people I met were struggling their asses off to make ends meet. When I become czar, I’m going to insist that every economist has to put in a couple of years as a social worker.” The experience helped form the first law of Bernsteinomics: It shouldn’t be so hard to get a good job.
Since then, Bernstein has spent much of his career evangelizing that message from within progressive think tanks—first at the Economic Policy Institute during the “big government is over” ’90s, and now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where he is a senior fellow. In 2016, Politico named him one of the 50 “thinkers” transforming American politics. He came in at No. 21. Madeleine Albright, Lena Dunham, and Gloria Steinem tied for No. 22.
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With that solid left-wing track record, Bernstein landed the Biden job as a thank-you to labor unions who had helped Barack Obama win the election. “On daily economic briefings in the Oval Office with the president, Jared was always at the table,” says Christina Romer, a Berkeley economist who was Obama’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Progressives hoped that Bernstein would be a savvy insider whose backroom machinations would give the administration one H-E–double hockey sticks of a shove to the left. Whenever lefties wanted something from the White House, they went to Jared. “Bernstein was always a conduit that progressives had to get into Obamaland,” says Alex Lawson, the director of Social Security Works, who tangled with Team Obama. Early on, Bernstein wangled a three-hour dinner with a handful of top progressives at the vice president’s residence, a rare chance for them to present their views directly to Biden himself.
But the rest of Obama’s economic team were nothing like Bernstein. Progressives had thought that Obama’s populist chatter of “hope” and “change” meant he was one of them. But while they were still in celebration mode after the election, he named two Bill Clinton holdovers as his top economic advisers: Larry Summers, Obama’s chair of the National Economic Council, had deregulated the financial system in the ’90s, and lefties saw Timothy Geithner, his Treasury secretary, as soft on big banks. “When he appointed Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff and Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, I thought, We’re fucked,” says Mike Lux, who oversaw progressive outreach during the transition.
On a snowy Tuesday in December 2008, Bernstein and the other economic advisers huddled in Chicago to put together a stimulus. The nearly $800 billion package they came up with was ambitious, a defibrillator jolt that stopped the crisis from careening into a second Depression. But it wasn’t nearly big enough—and Obama’s own advisers got in the way. Biden probed the wonks for “something big and inspirational,” ideas that wouldn’t just fix the economy, but change it. Instead, the team “told Obama all the things he couldn’t do, not the things he could do,” Reed Hundt, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission who was involved in the Obama transition, told me. When Obama threw out the idea of the government bankrolling a national power grid, Summers reportedly shot it down. When the team’s number crunchers suggested that resuscitating the economy would need an even bigger stimulus, Summers rejected the possibility before it reached the president.