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Column: The five people Obama should hire now


First, Peter Orszag turned in his ID card. Then Christina Romer went. In short order, Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel announced their exits. Jim Jones is gone, too. A lot of people are leaving the White House these days.

But I'm more interested in who should move in. President Obama has filled the open slots by promoting others in his administration. That's a sign he's happy with the advice and service he's received over the past two years. And in many ways, he's right to be. This administration entered office with the economy teetering on the edge of the abyss. His team has successfully pulled us onto firmer ground.

The next two years, however, will require new thinking. The problems of an acute crisis have given way to the frustrations of a slow recovery. The large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are likely to be wiped out by a resurgent Republican Party. Concerns about the deficit won't allow for much in the way of new spending.

The Obama administration needs an agenda suited to these circumstances, and to help them think one up, it needs fresh eyes and new voices.

Here are five suggestions. (Disclaimer: I didn't tell these people I'd be mentioning them, and I'm not personally close with any of them. This is about their ideas, not their personalities.)

1) Karen Kornbluh: In a previous life, Kornbluh was Sen. Obama's policy director. Now, she's serving as our ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It's not exactly hard labor. She gets a house in Paris. But it's time Obama called her back.

With health-care reform and the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Obama administration has done important work expanding and strengthening the safety net. Now officials need to turn their attention to the focus of Kornbluh's work: modernizing it. These programs were developed in an age when men were the breadwinners, women stayed home to raise children, single-parent families were rare, and workers tended to stick with a single employer for decades. All of that has changed, but our social supports haven't.

Kornbluh's vision is to refocus our entitlements on "juggler families": income-insecure families "juggling to make ends meet and so dependent on the mother's income [that] time off to care for a sick child or a new baby can result in devastating income interruptions and even job loss." Her proposals include updating Social Security so it counts time spent parenting and establishing a family-insurance program that would help earners who have to take time off to care for a child or parents. This sort of thinking is overdue, and you could even imagine it appealing to conservatives interested in supporting families.

2) Mark McClellan: McClellan led the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services under George W. Bush. He was instrumental in implementing the Medicare prescription drug benefit. That gives him two things the Obama administration definitely needs: credibility with Republicans on health care and experience making a major health-care initiative work.

McClellan has been a cautious friend and frequent critic of the Obama administration's health-care reforms. He complimented the legislation for making important progress on coverage and payment reforms while criticizing it for falling short on medical malpractice and consumer-driven policies. He deserves to be heard out on both points, and if Republicans fail in their efforts to repeal the legislation - and they probably will - some might be interested in having a sympathetic voice on the inside.

3) Dean Baker: Think the administration's economic team is too insular? Baker, a contrarian economist who was among the first to spot the housing bubble and who's been a vocal critic of the administration's economic policies (and The Washington Post's economic coverage), will fix that.

Baker can be counted on for innovative policy thinking. (For instance: How about doing away with pharmaceutical patents? Or letting foreclosed homeowners rent their homes? Or slapping a transaction tax on Wall Street to slow things down and reduce our deficit?) And, perhaps more important, he is uninterested in currying favor with those in power. It's hard to imagine him playing well with others in the White House, but then, that's the point. He'll say things they don't want to hear, but should.

4) Christina Romer: Romer, who just left the White House, won't exactly bring a new perspective. But she brings the right perspective. In her final speech as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, she offered the full-throated call for more fiscal stimulus, which the administration has largely abandoned. "Concern about the deficit cannot be an excuse for leaving unemployed workers to suffer," she said. "We have tools that would bring unemployment down without worsening our long-run fiscal outlook, if we can only find the will and the wisdom to use them."

She's right. The stimulus may not poll well, but it worked. Unemployment would've been much higher without it. Was it too small? It was. But Romer knew that at the time. She calculated that we needed $1.2 trillion. We got a bit more than half that, and then the economic crisis proved worse than it seemed when Romer was running the numbers.

Unemployment is now at 10 percent, and though the stimulus probably kept it from brushing 12 percent, the economic misery has turned voters against the intervention. The administration can't hide from this fight, however. The job situation is too grim for the government to simply leave the unemployed to their fate. Romer, speaking freely in her final days in office, had it right.

5) A political scientist: In general, Washington is split between people who specialize in governing (most of them economists or lawyers or public policy graduates) and people who specialize in running elections. Political scientists, who study the history and run the numbers on both pursuits, are not invited to the table. Adding to the snub, the president has hosted at the White House groups of journalists, pundits and historians. Again, no political scientists.

That's a shame, because the White House could use some political science. If the administration wanted out of the 24-hour news cycle that obsesses over who's up and who's down, it should've grabbed some of the people who've studied the waxing and waning of the liberal and conservative brands since the 1930s. (Did you know that on the eve of FDR's 1936 rout of the Republican Party, a majority of Americans polled by Gallup identified themselves as conservative?) The White House, which was shocked by the Republican Party's unwillingness to offer early cooperation, could have benefited from congressional scholars who knew that both history and electoral incentives ensured that Republicans would obstruct from Day One.

I could go on. Pick an issue, or a political quandary, and odds are there's a wealth of political science literature on the topic. The White House needs someone who can bring the profession's best insights and evidence to the administration's deliberations. And I hear there are even free desks for them to sit in.

Photo credit: White House.

By Ezra Klein  | October 18, 2010; 9:50 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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"The five people Obama should hire now"

I can only think of two:

1) A good real estate agent to find his retirement home for '12.

2) A REALLY good criminal defense atty for his treason trial.

If he picks wrong on #2 he won't need #1...

Posted by: illogicbuster | October 18, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse


"1) A good real estate agent to find his retirement home for '12."

Not going to happen, unless there is a 3rd party challenger, or a primary challenge, or he declines to run. Without one or more of those, history is against Obama getting handed his walking papers. If if the Republican wave in 2010 is a tsunami, you can't ignore electoral history just because you want it to be so.

"2) A REALLY good criminal defense atty for his treason trial."

I hope not. I doubt it will, but if the Republicans go the Clinton route and start prosecuting him for anything that seems likely to do the job, they will also get handed their walking papers. If there is a Republican wave, it's about government over-reach and the sagging economy, not about prosecuting Obama. Making that mistake will be politically damaging, if not fatal.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | October 18, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

@me: "If if the Republican wave in 2010"

I mean, "even if the Republican wave is a tsunami", that doesn't mean Obama is going to get kicked out.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | October 18, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Mark McClellan who allegedly played a role in political considerations for denying the application for Plan B to be granted over-the-counter status, before review and analysis by FDA experts was even completed? I don't think so.

Besides, Charlie Brown, when will you learn that Lucy is just going to pull that football away at the last moment? Courting credibility with Republicans? Don't make me laugh.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | October 18, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

The assumption here seems to be that President Hoover (oops, Obama) needs to juggle around the "key men" that advise him, rather than radically altering the economy.

I woke to read this in the Minneapolis Star-Trib: "There are many things Obama has said he would like to accomplish in the next two years of his term -- overhauling the nation's immigration laws, passing energy and climate-change legislation, and shrinking the federal deficit, to name a few."

Yes, during 10% (and growing) unemployment, we need to shrink the deficit rather than provide jobs and stimulus programs. This is the certified Village plan.

Posted by: stonedone | October 18, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse


Dream on. Oblather is a one termer. No, the Clinton route was STUPID. I didn't support going after a Pres for not being bright enough to keep an affair quiet. Treason is a different animal. But, nice attempt at equating having sex with treason.


Posted by: illogicbuster | October 18, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

"This administration entered office with the economy teetering on the edge of the abyss. His team has successfully pulled us onto firmer ground."

Yes, we are on such solid ground today: unemployment flirting with 10%, our too-big-to-fail banks even bigger and even closer to failure with none of their toxic waste cleaned off the books, foreclosures and homelessness way up accompanied by widespread systemic mortgage fraud. . . and clueless people going around saying Obama is doing the right things.

Posted by: B405 | October 18, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

"A political scientist: In general, Washington is split between people who specialize in governing (most of them economists or lawyers or public policy graduates) and people who specialize in running elections. Political scientists, who study the history and run the numbers on both pursuits, are not invited to the table."

Even better, how about an actual historian? Maybe even a real economic historian, like Peter Temin or Barry Eichengreen? Romer's great, but in the end she's an economist who uses historical data, and it's not the same thing. And Romer hasn't been a great spokesperson. Always appears embattled and on the defensive. Gholsbee's better so I'm optimistic on the message front, but the administration needs someone who can put some perspective on current economic circumstances and reframe the debate. On framing the Republicans have had their cake and shoved it down the Dems throats, too.

Bonus: both Temin and Eichengreen believe in more aggressive Fed action.

Posted by: dollarwatcher | October 18, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

illogicbuster: Please elaborate on your treason charges against the President. As I'm sure you know, such a prosecution against a sitting president is going to be an extremely difficult matter to prove, so it should probably be an air-tight case.

Posted by: MosBen | October 18, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Dean Baker was also one of the few people to warn about the high-tech bubble in the late 90's, so he has a pretty good track record. Chances of him being hired by the administration: ZERO.

Posted by: alekdavis | October 18, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

2nd the NOT Mark McClellan - NO because of more than just the Plan B refusal - but that was really disgustingly political.

Sometimes you Wash DC writers fall for that "they will work together trap" - I see No Point in trying to work with the Corporate Sell out crowd of Republicans. NO.

But I vote for Dean Baker to add some rational economic ideas to the Obama Admin.

But of course - we really need to see Wall Street Apologist Geithner OUT - that would generate some positive enthusiasm.

Posted by: fair001 | October 18, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm starting to suspect that Ezra sits too close and listens too hard to David Broder, who wails 'why can't we all just get along'.

As for the political scientists. I assume Ezra has looked at the American Political Science Review - which for decades has been trying to move Poly Sci in the direction of economics, number counting and mathematical models - and that is not going to do Obama anything good.

The kind of person I think Ezra wants previously would have been called a student/professor of Political Economy. But that doesn't exist in the US anymore. Maybe the very few Poly Sci guys that really spend more time (because they are now tenured and don't face publish or perish) on history, sociology, economics and psychology as it mixes with politics might have something to offer a POTUS, but surely they are hens teeth in Political Science.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | October 19, 2010 2:25 AM | Report abuse

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