First Rahm Emanuel, now Larry Summers. If Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner follows them out the door, Barack Obama may be on the verge of successfully shaking up his administration and rebooting his presidency.
Or maybe not. First the good news about Summers’s exit: the chair of the National Economic Council (NEC) may be an economic policy genius but he was a terrible public face for Obama’s economic agenda and could never convey how those policies would help Americans struggling to weather the recession. Plus, his background somehow managed to combine the worst of smug elite academia with the deregulation excesses of the nineties and the hedge fund bubble. He was not exactly the sort of fellow Americans could relate to at a time of economic calamity.
That said, his replacement could be worse. Names being floated include Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy and former Young & Rubicam Brands CEO Ann Fudge, based on the belief propagated by the business community that Obama needs a CEO inside his White House. But Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote a good column about why that’s not such a hot idea: CEOs care about making money for their own companies, while a top economic adviser should be concerned with pursuing the economic policies that will benefit as many Americans as possible. Those two poles aren’t always compatible.
Other contenders include Summers’ deputies Jason Furman and Diana Farrell. Farrell used to work at Goldman Sachs, hardly a bonus in this economy nor a rarity inside Obama world, while Furman directed the Hamilton Project, the centrist think tank co-founded by Clinton deregulation czar Bob Rubin. Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect says the top contender is UC-Berkeley professor Laura Tyson, who held the job under Clinton. That’s a safe pick, though not very inspired.
So who might shake up Obama’s team for the better and bring a Main Street perspective that is currently lacking? The Progressive Campaign Change Committee yesterday suggested someone like new Treasury adviser and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, outgoing North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Nobel Prize-–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman or FDIC chair Sheila Bair. I’d add to that list Jared Bernstein, who is currently Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economic adviser and often the lone progressive economist in the room during policy discussions. He’d play well with others, bring a fresh perspective to our stagnant economic debate and perhaps even energize Obama’s dispirited base—promising a renewed focus on jobs, jobs, jobs—with the election just round the corner.
Ari Berman's new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published on October 5 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.