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Wanted: Economic Savior

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Almost as unlikely are the figures who would provoke a confirmation fight that would be at once almost certainly unwinnable and have precious little political upside. So strike Summers immediately along with Gensler, whose Paul-to-­Damascus conversion from ultradove to ultrahawk on the question of securities regulation is commendable in principle but has left him with enemies on both sides of the aisle. Then cut those who would never take the job (Mayor Mike working for anyone but himself? Please.) and those already inside the administration whose shift would create more problems than they would solve (Daley). And then cut anyone whose career has been mainly in academia (Tyson) or government (Lew), not because they are objectionable per se, but because they would fail to advance Obama’s larger cause.

And what is that, exactly? It strikes me as being twofold, and the folds are tightly entwined: to appoint someone who, substantively and symbolically, (a) puts the matter of job creation front and center on the administration’s economic agenda, and (b) reassures the business community that Obama feels its pain.

The first point is, it seems to me, so obvious as to be beyond arguing. The second will provoke a degree of contention, almost exclusively among those on the left who maintain that the corporate world’s complaints about Obama are entirely unfounded and amount to nothing but self-serving whining. There is some truth to that, no doubt, but only some. (The business gripe about over- and irrational regulation, for example, is one that even many Obama officials believe is justified.) More germane, soothing relations with business has been one of Obama’s main priorities since the midterm shellacking, and there are few better or more dramatic ways for Obama to achieve that goal than with his choice of a new Treasury secretary.

Only two names on the current short lists would therefore fit the bill: Immelt and Sandberg. (There are, to be sure, more than this pair of fish in the sea, but for the purposes of illustration, let’s stick with just them.) Immelt is by a long shot a more familiar—even iconic in some circles, albeit less so than his predecessor, Jack Welch—figure. But as Obama learned when he named Immelt to head up his White House jobs council, only to have it marred by the discovery that G.E., despite its $5.1 billion in domestic profits last year, was essentially a U.S. tax-free zone, Immelt brings his share of baggage.

Quite the opposite is true of Sandberg. Though her public profile is nothing like as high as Immelt’s, that is changing quickly; to wit, see Ken Auletta’s lengthy profile of her in a recent New Yorker. In Silicon Valley, where she worked first for Google, helping transform the company into a behemoth, and where she is now in the process of pulling off the same trick at Mark Zuckerberg’s company, Sandberg is a bona fide superstar. Her ample brainpower is nearly matched by her leadership skills, managerial savvy, and winning personality. Oh, and she also happens to have served previously under Summers as Treasury’s chief of staff, so she knows the building and the policies it implements inside out.

For Obama, a large part of the choice between Immelt and Sandberg—or others cut from the same bolts of cloth—will boil down to precisely what sort of economic message he wants to send. They represent very different business traditions: manufacturing versus high tech, old economy versus new. There are reasonable arguments to be made for either point of emphasis. But both would be a marked departure from Geithner and far more in line with the direction in which the administration needs to go—and needs to be seen as going. And both are already are rich as Croesus and could afford the pay cut. Either or both may not, in the end, possess the requisite tolerance for being turned into a piñata. But there’s only one way to find that out: You have to ask.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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