Obama Plainly Disagrees with His World Bank Nominee

by Noam Scheiber | March 23, 2012

Over at The Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein argues that the Jim Yong Kim nomination for World Bank president is (for liberals at least) a pleasant byproduct of having a Democratic president:

It’s very difficult for me to imagine John McCain, had he won the presidency — or a President Mitt Romney, for that matter — reaching out beyond the usual bankers and recycled government officials to choose someone like Kim. But it’s not at all hard to picture Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or Chris Dodd picking him.
Presidents don’t make these types of picks on their own. They select them from a list (perhaps in some cases a very short list) that is generated for them by White House and agency staff. And the truth is that Clinton or Biden or Dodd would have either had the same people to turn to, or very similar people, and those people would have generated similar short lists. 

I disagree. As many commentators have pointed out (and Bernstein implicitly concedes), presidents of *both parties* have traditionally nominated bankers, economists, and bureaucrats to head the World Bank. Republican presidents tend to nominate a Republican banker/economist/bureaucrat (as Bush did with Paul Wolfowitz and Bob Zoellick), and Democratic presidents tend to nominate a Democratic banker/economist/bureaucrat (as Clinton did with James Wolfensohn). But, so far as I know, no president of either party has really broken that basic mold.

I’d guess the reason Obama finally did—Kim is a doctor, anthropologist, and public health expert who has run the World Health Organization—is for idiosyncratic reasons: Obama’s mother was an anthropologist and development expert who worked for years in Indonesia. The father of his Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, was also a lifelong development professional—a senior official in the Ford Foundation in Rhodesia, India, Thailand, and China. In the case of both Obama and Geithner, their parents’ careers gave them a genuine reverence for the work that development workers do overseas. (And, at least in Geithner’s case, it helped shape his worldview. As he told me for my recent book, “My father … is a deep believer in institution-building. You’re finding talent and supporting it. You’re not going to tell them the right thing to do.” It was pretty clear he felt the same way.) No surprise, then, that Obama explained the Kim nomination by saying it’s “time for a development professional to lead the world's largest development agency."

To me, the most interesting question the nomination raises is a direct consequence of that criterion. Simply put, a development professional, particularly one as accomplished as Kim, is going to have well-thought through ideas about how development should work. So when you nominate him as opposed to someone with a lot less development expertise, like a Wolfensohn, Wolfowitz, or Zoellick, you’re in some respects signing onto a particular view of development. 

In Kim’s case, it’s not hard to see how that might put him at odds with the Obama administration, at least when it comes to global health, his area of expertise. Kim’s formative professional experience was co-founding and running the group Partners in Health (PIH), which was dedicated to battling expensive, hard-to-treat diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis in the most forsaken places on the planet. To realize that goal, as Ezra Klein points out, Kim and his more famous PIH co-founder, Paul Farmer, had to wage a years-long battle against the global health establishment, which was generally skeptical of the approach. Suffice it to say, he believes in it pretty deeply. 

Problem is, the Obama administration has taken a very different (and, in the post-PIH world, equally controversial) position on global health aid: It has slowed the rate of growth in the money the U.S. government spends fighting AIDS and TB abroad, and instead spent a good deal of money on equally deadly but far easier-to-treat illnesses like pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria (especially for children).

I doubt a Wolfensohn or Zoellick type would have challenged this approach—such a person probably wouldn’t have spent much time thinking it through before ascending to the World Bank presidency. But in Kim’s case, opposition to the Obama approach is, you know, the foundational principle of his career. Will he dissent from the Obama administration line or pull his punches? 

Of course, as Brad Plumer notes, the World Bank traditionally hasn’t played *that* big a role in global health projects relative to other agencies, and even less so in recent years. But even assuming Kim has no plans to dramatically change that (and, who knows, maybe he does), his role as president still elevates the issue symbolically. The next time the ongoing controversy over Obama’s global health priorities boils over into the public consciousness, he’ll surely be asked to weigh in. I have no idea what he’ll say, but it’ll be pretty fascinating to watch. And probably not the kind of drama the White House was banking on when it made what generally looks like a pretty solid choice. 

Update: Just to clarify, I'm guessing this issue came up in Kim's White House interview for the job. But I'd also suspect that, because the people who supported Kim internally (like Geithner, who knew him via Dartmouth) aren't the same people who are on the front lines of global health policy, it's possible that they under-appreciated how bitter the fight between proponents of the current White House view and proponents of the Partners in Health view has been over the years.

Update II: According to this Reuters piece, it was Bill Clinton (via Hillary) who first recommended Kim to Geithner and Obama. But I think my point still stands: Kim does not appear to have made it onto Obama's short list through a conventional White House personnel search. And the reason Obama and Geithner felt comfortable with him is that they both have a soft spot for development pro's thanks to their personal back-stories.

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