Altman May Succeed Summers? Really?

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JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 17, 2010

Altman May Succeed Summers? Really?

Read Jonathan Chait's take on Roger Altman here.

Bloomberg News is reporting that Roger Altman may succeed Larry Summers as the president's top economic adviser:

Roger Altman, founder of Evercore Partners Inc. and a former deputy treasury secretary, is a leading candidate to replace Lawrence Summers as director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Altman met with Obama yesterday afternoon to talk to him about the job as head of the White House group that coordinates policy-making and economic advice for the president, an administration official said on condition of anonymity.

Altman, 64, who served at the Treasury Department under former President Bill Clinton, has close ties to the business community. The people familiar with the matter said he might be able to repair the rift that has emerged between Obama and investors. Altman didn’t return a request for comment.

It doesn't look like a done deal. Two sources tell TNR that at least one other candidate remains a serious contender for the job. And there may be more than one. Then again, these sources said they couldn't be certain whether Obama has made up his mind yet. 

When it comes to presidential appointments, I am usually slow to second-guess. The people inside the administratoin frequently know a lot more than the rest of us about what the job really requires, what qualities the candidates actually possess, and so on.

But Altman? Really? 

The optics make no sense to me. A major source of discontent with Obama is the perception that he's too close to the financial industry. Or, to put it more bluntly, everybody that doesn't work on Wall Street hates Wall Street. Making somebody from the financial industry the president's top economic adviser sends exactly the wrong message.

All of which might be ok if Altman could offer really great substantive guidance or, at least, could be counted upon to channel some more progressive views into the conversation. But I don't have confidence he'd do those things, either. As my colleague James Downie reminds me, he wrote a widely quoted New York Times op-ed in July arguing that

the tension between President Obama and the business community is hurting both sides and may hamper economic recovery. Closing that divide requires the business community to mute its criticism, and the administration to make personnel and policy adjustments. Neither should be hard.

(My colleague Jonathan Chait had more to say on a similar op-ed back in December 2009.)

To be fair, my knowledge of Altman is pretty superficial. Maybe I'm wrong about what he thinks or how he'd act in office. (As always, readers with different views are encouraged to let me know.) But based on what I've seen, read, and heard, Altman doesn't seem like the kind of person the administration needs right now.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, barack obama, jonathan chait, roger altman

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