Barnes, a onetime top lawyer to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and her team have navigated to the center of the administration’s economic strategy. They’ve helped to craft policies on education and clean energy, which Obama has said are key to securing the nation’s economic future — what he has called a “competitiveness” agenda.
Obama recently appeared on Spanish-language television to promote his education policy. It was one of nearly a dozen appearances on the issue in the past month. He also recently spent two days discussing his vision on developing new clean energy.
For Barnes, education, above all else, is the linchpin for economic and domestic policy.
“It’s a big mistake not to recognize education as an economic issue,” Barnes said. “We have seen a real loss in the [gross domestic product] as a result of not applying the same kind of education reforms that some of our global competitors have.”
She and her team have made a priority of marrying funding for education programs with what business executives and economists say is needed in the workforce.
“We have a realistic understanding of what the private sector is really looking for, and we’re looking to align education with what’s needed in the real world,” she said.
Barnes is leading several “real world” initiatives. One program encourages community colleges to develop skills to help fill specific jobs that companies have open. Another is focused on trying to create economic clusters resembling Silicon Valley.
Barnes’s high-profile role on economic policy is a key example of an administration in transition. In the first two years, Obama’s policies centered largely on stemming sharp economic decline. Now the president has turned toward building a foundation for economic growth — and education, energy and infrastructure are its cornerstones.
“You are seeing a shift from the rescue phase of the economy to a transition to a growth phase,” said Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. “And as you shift to growing the economy, the things that make America a competitive place internationally are rooted in domestic policy broadly and not just purely macroeconomic policy.”
Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said that Barnes has always been a “forceful member of the economic team.” But, he added, as issues such as education have moved to the forefront, “her leadership on the economic agenda has grown even more prominent.”
Before joining Obama’s campaign, Barnes, 46, and a native of Richmond, was executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.