Back to the future: Obama turns to Clinton economic team

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2011 

WASHINGTON — In retooling his economic team for the second half of his four-year term, President Barack Obama has gone back to the future, turning to old hands from President Bill Clinton's administration to try to restore confidence in the slowly recovering economy.

The economy flourished in the 1990s under Clinton, whose campaign song was Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" (Thinking About Tomorrow). Never mind the tune's refrain: "Yesterday's gone."

Thursday, as expected, Obama named as his new chief of staff William Daley, 62, a J.P. Morgan Chase executive and former Clinton commerce secretary who's also a member of the prominent Daley Chicago political family. Daley has headed J.P. Morgan's Midwest operations as well as the firm's corporate responsibility section.

Obama's also expected to announce Friday that he'll choose Clinton's National Economic Council head Gene Sperling, 52, as his own new council director. Sperling is an adviser to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and has worked for investment house Goldman Sachs.

Obama also named former Clinton budget director Jacob Lew, 55, as his budget director last year, after Peter Orszag left the post.

It's hardly surprising that Obama seeks to identify his administration with Clinton's when it comes to the economy. The Clinton years coincided with the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Gross domestic product grew by about a third. The U.S. work force expanded by more than 18 million jobs. Unemployment fell steadily, from 7.5 percent in 1992 to 4 percent in 2000. Federal budget deficits shrunk from a high of $290 billion in 1992 to four years of surplus starting in 1998.

If Obama's ex-Clinton hands deliver similar results, he'll have a much better shot at re-election in 2012.

All these ex-Clinton aides have experience and broad networks throughout government and Wall Street. And all are considered pragmatists able to work with Republicans and business leaders. That makes some liberals nervous.

Daley last year, in remarks to The New York Times, assessed Obama's health care expansion as a political overreach. Separately, he has said that most Americans aren't liberals and want "pragmatic change."

As a lawyer, Daley also helped get the North American Free Trade Agreement — a treaty many unions and liberals dislike — through Congress before becoming Clinton's commerce secretary.

All this disappoints some liberals in Obama's Democratic base, even as others praised Daley as even-handed and inclusive.

Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal group, said that Daley's appointment "sends the wrong message to the American people" and that "it's up to Daley to prove that he's not carrying water in the White House for the big banks that took our economy over the cliff."

But Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman who enjoyed a strong liberal following, said Daley's a good choice. Dean had criticized Obama's operation previously as being too insular and dismissive of those outside their circle.

Dean said Daley "knows Washington, but he also is not of Washington. . . . I don't agree with (Daley) on a lot of stuff politically. But I do think, A, he's a grown-up, and B, he gets that you don't treat people like you know everything and they don't," which could be interpreted as a disguised jab at Obama's previous chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, whose aggressive style often rubbed people the wrong way.

The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas J. Donohue, praised Daley Thursday as "a man of stature and extraordinary experience in government, business, trade negotiations, and global affairs" who is "an accomplished manager and strong leader" and said his group looked forward to working with him.

The National Association of Manufacturers also was optimistic, hailing Daley in a statement as "a very accomplished and strong business leader."

However, the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a group of smaller, U.S.-based manufacturers who favor protectionist trade policies, said that Daley as commerce secretary and as a director of the U.S.-China Business Council, had helped pave the way for jobs and manufacturing to leave the U.S.

Introducing Daley at the White House, Obama noted Daley's work for Clinton and corporate America and praised his "deep understanding of how jobs are created and how to grow our economy," adding that "I'm convinced that he'll help us in our mission of growing our economy."

Though Obama campaigned in 2008 on bringing change and new blood to Washington, from the start he's included experienced hands from the Clinton years. Daley himself advised Obama's transition team.

In joining the board of centrist Democratic policy organization Third Way, Daley said last year that he believes in "building a big tent political movement that can attract an enduring majority" with a pro-market, national security emphasis that seeks "common ground on culture issues."

He said that most Americans are neither conservatives nor liberals and that "we must steer a more moderate course."

In his 2005 policy book, "The Pro-Growth Progressive," Sperling advocated centrist policy solutions to economic challenges. He wrote that America requires "a new pro-growth progressive consensus. We need a deeper appreciation of the inevitability of change, the benefits of open markets, and the upward aspirations and entrepreneurial nature of Americans," while expanding the middle class.

If named by Obama to head the council, he'd replace economist Larry Summers, who's returning to Harvard University.

Sperling's a lawyer by training, not an economist. Leonard Burman, a Syracuse University professor who served with Sperling in the late 1990's during the Clinton administration, said that Sperling is dogged and sufficiently steeped in economics to do the job well, adding that, "Sperling does have a better political IQ than Summers does."

(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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