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Posted at 7:05 PM ET, 01/ 6/2011

Gene Sperling to head the NEC -- again

By Ezra Klein

Thumbnail image for sperlingtestifies.png

At 11 a.m. tomorrow, President Obama will name Gene Sperling as director of the National Economic Council, the Washington Post has confirmed. This won't be Sperling's first tour of duty in that spot: He held that position from 1996 to 2000, making him the longest-serving NEC director in history. And his return is no coincidence.

Obama's personnel decisions have shown a strong preference for prior government experience. William Daley, who was named chief of staff earlier today, is a former Secretary of Commerce. Jack Lew, who replaced Peter Orszag as head of the Office of Management and Budget, held the same position under President Clinton. Robert Gates, who leads the Defense Department, was a holdover from George W. Bush. Larry Summers, who Sperling is replacing, was Treasury Secretary under Clinton. And the list goes on. Expectations that Obama would begin to turn to people whose primary experience was outside government have not, thus far, been borne out in his staff shakeup.

In that way, Obama is making good on a pledge not commonly associated with Democrats: To run the government more like a business. The Obama White House views public service as a sector like any other -- and just as a corporation would prize experience in a surgeon or a chief executive, the White House believes the government should prize it on the National Economic Council and in the Defense Department. Having done the job well before is the best predictor of being able to do it well now. That's partially why the administration's picks have been so poor from a messaging standpoint: The people they considered best for the job were not the ones with the cleanest resumes.

Daley, of course, spent much of the last decade as an executive at J.P. Morgan Chase. Sperling, for his part, received more than $800,000 from Goldman Sachs in return for helping them run an international charitable project aimed at helping women in developing countries run their own businesses. He also made hundreds of thousands of dollars giving speeches to other firms on Wall Street. Both picks have aroused ire among those who think the Obama administration is to close to the banks.

But Sperling's former colleagues say his long record should ease those fears. "Gene did more good for the working poor in the Clinton White House than anyone else," says Paul Begala, who served as an adviser to President Clinton. "He was there for them in every single meeting." He also happened to lead the NEC while the White House was facing a Republican Congress -- which is, at least with the House, the exact situation the Obama White House suddenly finds itself in.

In that way, there's a pattern apparent in the recent appointments: The people who served successfully in Clinton's second term, when he had found his rhythm against a hostile Congress, are being brought back into key roles. Sperling, who has more experience running the NEC in these circumstances than anyone else alive, was, for Obama, the logical choice.

Photo credit: Susan Walsh/AP.

By Ezra Klein  | January 6, 2011; 7:05 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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public policy major


no degree in economics

no publications in economics

enough of the harvard elites, please.

Posted by: docwhocuts | January 7, 2011 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Of course, he is inevitable. Obama only wants people who were high in government when the mistakes were made. That way they can protect de-regulation and create a new asset bubble like NASDAQ that caused a recession and required the housing bubble to correct. It is a shame that Reagan appointees were too old--or like Volcker, too reasonable. Change you can believe in--as in FDR selected Harding cabinet officers instead of people with fresh ideas.

Posted by: jhough1 | January 7, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Ah, the surgeon is back to lend us his great expertise on matters economic!

Not all knowledge comes out of college or academic activities, dear. Read Matt Miller's profile, which shows how Sperling's intellect, good sense, dedication, and principles led him from an unpaid job serving sandwiches at age 30 to a member of the Cabinet at 38:

Posted by: j3hess | January 7, 2011 3:50 PM | Report abuse

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