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Gene Sperling likely to become Obama's top economic aide

He held the same White House position — director of the National Economic Council — from 1997 through 2000, when he was a key negotiator with the Republican-controlled Congress over economic issues.

January 07, 2011|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times

Treasury official Gene Sperling, expected to be named as President Obama's top economic aide, has two important qualifications that experts said probably helped him secure the job: He's done it before and he's dealt with a hostile Congress.

Sperling, 52, held the same White House position — director of the National Economic Council — from 1997 through 2000 under President Clinton. He was a key negotiator with the Republican-controlled Congress then over economic issues, such as preventing cuts to the earned-income tax credit for low-wage families.

With Republicans taking the majority in the House and gaining more seats in the Senate, the ability to work across party lines will be crucial, said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank.

"It would be hard to find someone who is more experienced in the particular tasks this job entails," Greenstein said.

President Obama is expected to make the appointment Friday when he discusses the economy at a Maryland window manufacturing facility. Sperling would replace Lawrence Summers, who left the White House last week to return to Harvard University, a move he announced in September.

Summers, a former treasury secretary known as a brilliant economic thinker, elevated the NEC job to new importance. Sperling probably wouldn't have Summers' unusually strong influence on the administration's economic strategy.

The other leading candidates were Roger Altman, chairman of investment banking firm Evercore Partners and a former deputy Treasury secretary under Clinton, and economist Richard Levin, president of Yale University.

Since 2009, Sperling has served as counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and has been involved in key policy decisions, such as the bailouts of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler, as well as negotiations with Congress over last year's small-business lending bill and the temporary extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

"What's unusual about Sperling is the degree to which he blends knowledge and background with the policies with the feel for the broader political environment," Greenstein said.

Sperling's work for Geithner increases the treasury secretary's clout on Obama's economic team, said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

"My guess is they think fairly similarly," he said.

Baker and some liberals have criticized a potential Sperling appointment because of consulting work Sperling did in 2008 for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Sperling was paid $887,727 for helping the Wall Street firm launch a charitable initiative called 10,000 Women, which aimed to spend $100 million over five years to provide business and management education to underserved women around the world.

But some people who have worked with Sperling said he's not beholden to Wall Street, noting his years of work on women's education after leaving the White House and a history of advocating for average Americans. They said the title of Sperling's 2005 book best describes him: "The Pro-Growth Progressive."

"He understands there's larger economic growth issues that are important to the business community," said former NEC colleague Sarah Rosen Wartell, now executive vice president of the Center for American Progress. "But he is also a very passionate advocate for what people would consider traditional liberal interests."

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