Wednesday, September 22, 2010

CEO? No Thanks

If this is true, I'm significantly downgrading my opinion of the Barack Obama presidency:
As several outlets have reported, top administration officials want to replace Summers with somebody from the business community--i.e., a current or former CEO. (Ideally, they'd like to get a woman, since Romer's departure means the economic team is nearly all-male now.) The idea is to disarm critics who say Obama is reflexively anti-business--or that, at the very least, he's getting bad advice because none of his top advisers come from the business community. 
That's Jonathan Cohn, in an excellent post about Summers and liberals, referring to reports such as this one.  But getting back to the main point here: this is a remarkably stupid plan, if true. It will not "disarm" critics who say that Obama is reflexively anti-business, any more than having Bob Gates at Defense "disarmed" critics of Obama's approach to terror -- indeed, actually expanding the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and killing a lot of terrorists didn't slow down those who were intent on claiming that Obama was some sort of secret bin Laden sympathizer.  It doesn't work like that.  Critics will say what they will say, and it mostly doesn't matter, and at any rate there's nothing you can do about it.  What you can do, however, is have a well-run White House and do your best to have a well-run government.

We're talking here about a very serious job, one of the most important ones in the White House, both for substantive reasons and, moreover, for political reasons; after all, the condition of the economy two years from now will likely be the single most important factor in whether Obama serves a second term or not.  That's the actual condition of the economy, not the spin version of it.  Not the short-term reaction to White House personnel announcements.  Even if "the business community" goes all gooey-eyed over Obama's new National Economic Council chair on announcement day, they aren't going to stay that way if the economy tanks -- and no matter how much they might hate some other potential NEC chair candidate on the first day, they'll be (relatively) happy soon enough should the economy perform well.  Now, obviously, there's more to good economic results than White House personnel...but this is an important job, and it should be filled by someone with serious government, and preferably White House, experience.  Indeed, ideally one would prefer someone who has worked in both the White House and Treasury or some other executive branch department or agency; we're talking about the person who is responsible for coordinating the actions of several competing pieces of the government, so the more he or she understands the government the better.  Indeed, if after Summers the job is returning to more of a coordinating and honest broker role, knowing in depth how the White House and the government work might actually be more important than in-depth knowledge about the economy. 

Now, if these reports are simply a nod to an important constituency on the way to choosing whoever is the best available man or woman for the job, well, no harm done.  But if the administration is really more concerned about the short-term reaction to the selection -- how it plays in the press, rather than how it will help the president govern as well as possible -- then it's both a terrible mistake and a sign of real screwed up priorities.  It will certainly be interesting to see which it is.


  1. Note, too, that the "critics" which President Obama is supposedly trying to disarm are, naturally, conservative ones. Apparently no one gives a crap about left wing critics. Same as it ever was.

    One of my great frustrations with the Obama presidency has been the sneaking suspicion that too much Administration policy has been crafted with the intent of "disarming critics." Which as you point out is incredibly stupid. It never works because here's a news flash to the Democrats: no matter WHAT you do, Rush Limbaugh will NEVER EVER LIKE YOU! He will always say mean things about you!

    You cannot govern under a fear of criticism. During the primaries my biggest concern about Obama v. Hillary was that Obama would indeed not have the spine to govern despite criticism. My big concern about Hillary was the Clinton Derangement Syndrome would rear its ugly head again, meaning far more wackadoodle weird crap of the "they-killed-Vincent-Foster" variety than if Obama were president. Turns out I was right about the former and wrong about the latter. We've had just as much weird conspiracy crap about Obama without the grit to deal with it.

  2. "We're talking here about a very serious job"

    I don't think this job is anywhere near as important as that of Federal Reserve Governors.

  3. Mercer,

    Well, it's not as important as Fed chair. Harder to tell about the rest of the Fed. Those are important; so is this one -- among other reasons because NEC chair will have a fair amount of say in who (if anyone) gets picked for other economic policy jobs. (and I only said it was one of the most important WH jobs, FWIW).

  4. I've been thinking lately that after the election we might see a replay of Rumsfeld/Gates in 2006, only this time with Tim Geithner. The administration will respond to the Democrats' losses by pushing out the high-profile "Face-of-the-Recession," the same way Rumsfeld became the face of the Iraq War.

    And then the nominee to replace him will go before the Senate, and speak in dire tones about the economy and unemployment, the same way Gates was candid about the war in his testimony, even though policy will remain largely the same.

    Jon, do you see this happening? And would it be a big mistake? How important is Geithner to the White House, or the economy?

  5. Let me speculate that this is not about 'critics' (though that is the inevitable media spin). It is about goosing the markets in the short term, as a favor to Dems in the fall.

    The tone on CNBC the last couple of days has been that maybe Obama isn't a total socialist commie after all - silly stuff, but the investor class seems to eat it up. And it is in Dems' interest for Obama to blow kisses toward investors at a moment when the economy may be shifting from its summer doldrums toward a more positive recovery.

    Conventional wisdom, IIRC, is that the public's views of the economy are locked in by this point, and won't shift by November, but perhaps Mickey Kaus' Feiler faster thesis will apply, and more upbeat economic news over the next six weeks will lift the electorate's mood a bit in time for the election.

  6. Maybe Obama simply thinks getting a left-leaning CEO would be a good voice to have for policy discussions. I think we do a disservice to all politicians (left or right) when we see every action as meant in influence short-term media reaction.


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