Rubin Stepping Into Spotlight at Treasury
By Clay Chandler
It takes only a few minutes to walk from Robert E. Rubin's cramped office in the West Wing of the White House to the high-ceilinged corridors of the Treasury Department next door. But colleagues say Rubin, the man President Clinton named yesterday to replace Lloyd Bentsen as treasury secretary, may discover the gulf separating the two buildings is far greater than the physical distance.
The move to Treasury will thrust Rubin, a self-effacing millionaire whom Clinton hailed yesterday as "the consummate honest broker," into a high-profile role far different from his previous experiences.
In the White House, where he headed the president's National Economic Council, Rubin operated much as he did when he was a top executive at the Wall Street investment bank of Goldman Sachs & Co.: He was Mr. Inside, a soft-spoken middleman who used skills honed over a lifetime of mediating between powerful egos to coax consensus from a team of economic advisers whose opinions often clashed.
But as treasury secretary, Rubin an intensely private man who lives in a suite at the Jefferson Hotel a few blocks from the White House and often seems to regard the hurly-burly of Washington politics with the detachment of an anthropologist engaged in field research will be obliged to play the very unfamiliar role as Mr. Outside, the most visible spokesman for the Clinton administration's economic policies.
Robert S. Strauss, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and a Rubin mentor, said yesterday he would have doubted that Rubin was ready for the Treasury Department job when he joined the administration two years ago. But Strauss, who helped get Rubin involved in Democratic politics more than two decades ago, said Rubin is now well-prepared and has worked hard to polish his performance in public appearances. Indeed, he said, Rubin now enjoys the limelight "probably more than he'd be willing to admit."
Rubin "was not up to being treasury secretary two years ago but he is now," a senior Republican echoed yesterday. "He knows the issues, he is beginning to know the politics. He is just not very media savvy yet, but he is much better."
Bentsen will leave Treasury Dec. 22. Deputy Treasury Secretary Frank Newman will serve as acting secretary until Rubin is confirmed by the Senate. Administration officials said last night that Erskine Bowles, deputy White House chief of staff, is the leading candidate to replace Rubin. Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Laura D'Andrea Tyson is also under consideration, the officials said.
Administration colleagues said Rubin's arrival at Treasury would not signal a significant policy shift. Like Bentsen, he has argued against increased deficits and insisted that administration policies be defensible to budget experts and the financial markets. The Clinton administration, Rubin noted yesterday, can take pride in its "absolute insistence on real numbers, no gimmicks, real measures that recognize costs and trade-offs and fiscal responsibility."
One difference is the long-standing concern of Rubin, a native New Yorker, for urban America. "We must deal with the problems of our public education system, the problems of our inner cities, the problems of our ever-worsening income disparity and the challenge of strengthening and expanding the nation's middle class," he said in a Rose Garden ceremony with Bentsen and President Clinton yesterday.
In terms of style, though, the change will be overwhelming. In contrast to Bentsen's Treasury office, which featured an imposing "power wall" of photos showing Bentsen with major political figures of the last four decades, Rubin's West Wing office is largely absent of political totems.
Bentsen, a former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was intimately familiar with the ways of Washington and Congress. A standard feature of Rubin's desktop in recent months has been a book describing the workings of the congressional appropriations committees.
"Rubin does not have the rapport with either house of Congress," incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said yesterday at seminar sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Domenici said Rubin was "well-qualified" to serve as treasury secretary.
Senate Republican leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.) endorsed Rubin's nomination yesterday. "He's a man of honesty and integrity who is certainly qualified to be treasury secretary," Dole said in a statement.
And while Bentsen was a fixture of Sunday morning television talk shows and sometimes seemed more relaxed on camera than off, Rubin is working to master the medium. During one recent appearance on public television, host Charlie Rose had to grab Rubin's hand in the middle of the broadcast because Rubin's hand gestures blocked the camera's view of his own face. Rubin has been coached by Michael D. Sheehan, a media consultant who sometimes advises Clinton.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Rubin said that he had dealt frequently with newspaper reporters during his tenure at Goldman Sachs. But soon after his arrival in Washington, he said, "it became apparent to me that television is a different medium."
A veteran of nearly 30 years on Wall Street, Rubin is on familiar turf when dealing with financial markets. In his position as head of the National Economic Council, he was the administration's liaison to Wall Street, working the telephones to make sense of significant movements in stock or bond prices.
Rubin also has headed an administration task force on derivatives, and is said by colleagues to harbor deep concerns about the potential for those complex financial instruments many of which he helped develop to play a destabilizing role in global financial markets.
Analysts on Wall Street, where traders have sometimes been rattled by Bentsen's comments about the value of the dollar, said Rubin's appointment might have a calming influence on foreign exchange markets.
The transition from Bentsen to Rubin has the air of a venerated chairman passing the reins of the firm to a trusted junior associate. Rubin managed part of Bentsen's financial portfolio at Goldman Sachs and Bentsen had urged Clinton to pick Rubin as his successor.
In a meeting with a small group of reporters at his Treasury office yesterday, Bentsen said he told Rubin several months ago shortly after informing Clinton that he planned to step down He recalled telling Rubin: "Whatever your personal objectives are, I know a position that's going to be opening up."
Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company