Where are the White House’s new voices?

January 9, 2013

About a year ago, I talked to an ex-Obama White House official about who would replace  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner when the time came. We cycled through a few names before Jack Lew's came up. "Oh," said the former staffer. "Of course it'll be Lew." 


Jack lew and President Obama: BFFs? (Ron Sachs - VIA BLOOMBERG)

President Obama's personnel strategy has changed over the years. When he first took office, his hiring choices were notable for the wide net he cast. Rather than pulling together his own "Chicago Mafia," or even populating his inner circle with members of his campaign, he dug deep into the bench of ex-Clinton officials (Peter Orszag, Larry Summers, Lew, Gene Sperling), held onto some George W. Bush appointees (Robert Gates), tapped a handful of key members of Congress (Ray Lahood, Rahm Emanuel), and grabbed a slew of high-profile academics (Christina Romer, Cass Sunstein). The White House was criticized for its relative dearth of business executives, but it was nevertheless a White House where many different worlds collided into each other.

But after that initial burst of hiring, Obama has shown a clear preference for what some allies call "line-of-sight promoting." What they mean is that the president likes to promote people in his direct line of sight. When Orszag left the Office of Management and Budget, Lew took his place. When Summers left the National Economics Council, Sperling took his place. When Gates left the Defense Department, Leon Pannetta, who was then serving as CIA chief, took his place. When Romer left the Council of Economic Advisers, Austan Goolsbee took her place, and then when Goolsbee left, Alan Krueger, who'd spent the first years of Obama's presidency working at Treasury, took his place. The list goes on.

None of these hiring decisions are, in and of themselves, strange. It makes sense for the president to prize past experience and a proven ability to get along with his team. But viewed together, they appointments have become very strange, and a frequent source of speculation among Democratic insiders. The fact is that the White House has not named an actual outsider to their economic team since taking office. 

According to Bloomberg's Han Nichols, the White House will, as expected, name Lew as treasury secretary on Thursday. In doing, Obama will get a highly experienced, widely respected public servant who has the president's full trust. He'll be naming a treasury chief who knows the budget as well as anyone alive, and whose experience with Congress runs deep, though his relationships with Republicans are strained. Obama will also be naming someone with a bit of Wall Street experience, though Lew's time as chief operating officer of Citigroup's Alternative Investments unit, which bet against the housing market, is not exactly considered a political plus for him.

Lew, in other words, makes sense for the position. But he's one more example of the president preferring old friends to new blood on his economic team. Can it really be the case that after four very difficult years, there is nothing the White House would gain in its second term by bringing in outsiders with fresh experience, different relationships and a new perspective?

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