Jonathan Cohn

Daley, Sperling, and Obama 2.0

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Multiple media outlets are reporting that President Obama today will name William Daley as his new chief of staff, which means I've missed my chance to weigh in on him. Both Jon Chait and Ezra Klein have expressed misgivings about Daley and I share them. I'm also troubled by the accounts in Jeffrey Toobin's book about the aftermath of the 2000 election, in which Daley comes off as reluctant to fight for the Florida recount that might have ultimately put Al Gore in the White House. 

Of course, the primary duty of the chief of staff is to run a disciplined White House operation that carries out the president's agenda. It's a particular skill set that, by the looks of things, Daley has. Maybe that's why Obama chose him and why, in the future, people like me will look back on this decision more favorably than we do today.

That brings us to another appointment apparently in the works, although not yet final and, similarly, somewhat controversial. Reports suggest that Obama is likely to tap Gene Sperling, presently a senior adivser in the Treasury Department, to succeed Summers as director of the National Economic Council.

Sperling's nomination has raised protests for two reasons: Some very well-paid work for Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg News that he did in between his service in the Clinton Administration and Obama Administration; and his supposed identity as a "Rubinite"--that is, a disciple of Clinton economic advisor Robert Rubin.

At Mother Jones today, David Corn does due diligence on both issues. I presume that Corn, like me, is highly sympathetic to the critique that the Obama administration could use more creative and progressive economic thinkers . (Someday somebody will explain to me why Joseph Stiglitz wasn't working in the White House on day one.) But Corn argues, persuasively in my view, that liberal critics have the wrong target in Sperling.

I recommend reading the whole item, particularly the material about what Sperling was actually doing for Goldman. But I want to quote just one passage: a testimonial from Robert Greenstein, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In 1997, says Robert Greenstein, the executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sperling held up a budget deal the Clinton administration had negotiated with the Republicans in control of Congress because he believed child tax credits for low-income families in the package were not sufficiently strongand he succeeded in beefing up that part of the legislation. He promoted debt relief and debt cancelation for poorer nations. ("He was one of the critical players on this in the Clinton administration," says Hart.) Sperling successfully urged Clinton to dedicate budget surpluses to Social Security in order to prevent Republicans (and some Democrats) from raiding these funds for tax cuts for the wealthy. Sperling then came close to hammering out an accord with the Republicans that would tie the surpluses to Social Security (and include federally subsidized private retirement accounts as an add-on), according to a former Clinton administration aide, but the talks faltered during the GOP's impeachment crusade. In a way, Sperling was the father of Al Gore's "lockbox." (Some progressives griped at the time about locking up the surpluses in this mannerinstead of spending the money on needed investments. But Sperling's argument was that with the Republicans in control of Congress, these funds would not be appropriated for progressive purposes.) ... Greenstein, though, says that progressives "critical of Gene are overreacting to the one Goldman Sachs payment. His track record is of a progressive who fights the hardest for issues related to low-income children, not of a Wall Street guy."

Like running the White House, the ability to blend policy and politics--particularly when facing a hostile Congressional majority--is a very particular skill set. By all appearances, Sperling has it. And, as I have said before, there is nobody in Washington I trust more than Bob Greenstein on these matters. If Sperling is good enough for Greenstein, then he should be good enough for most progressives. 

 

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