What a Romney administration economic team might look like

October 3, 2012

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency in November, he will inherit a weak economy, huge budget deficits and a perilous global economic situation. Among his first, and most important, tasks will be appointing people to senior economic policy jobs to help him deal with those challenges.

Predicting Romney’s picks is a little tougher than predicting President Obama’s second-term economic team. Obama has a 31 / 2-year record in the job, revealing whom he trusts, as well as the kinds of sensibilities he prefers in his close advisers. But here are some of the names that Republican economic policy veterans expect Romney to consider if he builds a team.

Topping the list is the Treasury secretary job, a Cabinet post that requires a mix of intelligence, gravitas and management skill. Romney has a number of options for the most visible member of any White House economic team:

Robert Zoellick recently ended a five-year term as president of the World Bank and has been advising Romney as part of his foreign policy transition team. The former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush would probably be a major contender for Treasury secretary in a Romney administration, assuming he did not get a top foreign policy job, such as secretary of state. But Zoellick’s foreign policy role has been under attack from the GOP’s neoconservative wing, boosting the odds that he would land at 1500 Pennsylvania Ave., rather than in Foggy Bottom.

Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio who was considered as a Romney running mate, has been an effective campaign surrogate. During high-stakes budget negotiations, the Office of Management and Budget director under Bush would know the substance of the debate and the congressional politics. One major downside: His appointment would leave a Senate vacancy in a swing state when control of the body could hinge on only a few votes. Romney and Portman have had plenty of face time in recent days; Portman portrayed Obama in preparations for Wednesday night’s debate.

Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers early in the Bush administration, was an architect of the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. He has advised Romney in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. It is rare for an academic to serve as Treasury secretary (Larry H. Summers’s tenure at the end of the Clinton administration was the only one in recent decades), but Hubbard, dean of Columbia University’s business school, has been effective in areas far beyond the ivory tower. Still, an appointment could compromise his candidacy for the Federal Reserve chairmanship, which comes open in January 2014.

Another significant candidate to lead Treasury is not an individual at all: Call it the Mystery CEO. As a businessman, Romney has interacted with hundreds of corporate executives and could decide that one of them has the right mix of skills for the post. Bush took that approach with his first two appointments to the office: Paul O’Neill and John Snow, who had been chief executives of aluminum giant Alcoa and railroad CSX, respectively. Neither was on the radar of many Washington policy hands before his appointment, and Romney could pull a similar surprise. Arguing against it: Neither O’Neill nor Snow had a particularly illustrious run in the job.

Beyond those boldface names, there are two more Bush administration veterans who could be considered for Treasury chief. And even if passed over for the big job, they could serve as a deputy Treasury secretary or as a close presidential adviser in the White House.

Randal Quarles is, as blogger Felix Salmon of Reuters put it, a “mini-Romney.” After serving in the Bush Treasury, he joined the Carlyle Group. He shares Romney’s Mormon faith. Quarles also earned rave reviews under Bush for his team-player style.

Kevin Warsh served in the Bush White House and then spent five years as a Fed governor, where he was among Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s closest colleagues during the financial-crisis cleanup. He has distanced himself from Bernanke’s monetary easing policy since 2010, however, making him more simpatico with Romney’s economic views. Warsh, 42, would be young for a Treasury secretary, but he has seemed too young for every job he has ever had. He has told friends, however, that he prefers to stay in New York in the private sector.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin may have a good chance at a senior job. The former Congressional Budget Office chief could bring his fiscal policy credentials to the OMB or serve as the all-purpose traffic manager for economic policy as director of the National Economic Council.

Jim Nussle, a former congressman and OMB chief during Bush’s last two years in office, could also make a return to government, perhaps back to the OMB or to any of several Cabinet positions.

Others who had economic policy roles in the Bush years who might be tapped by a Romney administration: Tim Adams, former Treasury undersecretary; Chuck Blahous, an expert in Social Security and Medicare; and Kristin Forbes, an MIT economist who served on Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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