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Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Best Reason to Elect Barack Obama

posted by on September 18 at 16:24 PM

… is something David Plotz brought up in a September 12th edition of Slate’s Political Gabfest: his cabinet.

Obama could have his pick of a well-stocked and highly motivated bench of left- and center-leaning experts in every relevant field of governance—serious people with solid policy ideas and a sense of what should be done at the Federal level to start solving our problems.

It’s a relatively popular game for political pundits to do a fantasy draft for Obama. With this list to pick his roster, how couldn’t it be fun?

Let’s just talk about economic teams. The Economist is positively giddy:

On domestic matters, Obama has assembled a team of sharp academic economists who premise their work on his supposed ability to sell sophisticated policy. Most prominent has been Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor whom many expect to head a President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Goolsbee’s record suggests neither the hostility to globalized capitalism nor the desire for large-scale redistribution that conservatives, spooked by tales of Obama’s left-wing record, might fear: Goolsbee is a problem solver who favors such unsexy proposals as altering U.S. tax forms…

From Harvard, Obama plucked Jeffrey Liebman, who has produced good research on the earned-income tax credit and its role in moving people from welfare to work, and David Cutler, a health economist who wants doctors’ pay tied to medical outcomes.

As of last week, though, Obama’s newly appointed economics director is Jason Furman, an economist in the Clinton administration. His presence rebuts criticism that Obama’s team has too little policymaking experience.

Furman, too, hews to the center, heading Washington’s Hamilton Project, co-founded by Bob Rubin, once Clinton’s treasury secretary.

Furman is a staunch free-trader who once praised Wal-Mart and has favored lowering corporate taxes. With a Ph.D. from Harvard, he, also, does not lack for academic credentials.


On the economic front, Obama relies on a handful of academics likely to make the leap into government if he wins. The University of Chicago’s Austan Goolsbee, who writes the Economic Scene column for the New York Times, seems a shoo-in for the policy-focused Council on Economic Advisers, where under President Bush Glenn Hubbard became a powerful force. Harvard pension expert Jeffrey Liebman would likely be headed to the politically focused National Economic Council, where Robert Rubin got his start in the Clinton White House. A third name on Obama’s economic team is David Cutler, a Harvard health economist who served on both councils under Clinton.

There isn’t a clear front-runner for Treasury secretary, which could be good news for former secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers, who has been not-so-quietly campaigning to return to his old post. Timothy F. Geithner, head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, would be a solid choice for Treasury.

Another stratagem for keeping financial markets calm would be to keep Henry Paulson, who has earned the respect of many Democrats, in office for a year or two.

Two Hillary Clinton backers who could wind up in an Obama White House are former Goldman Sachs executive and assistant Treasury secretary Gary Gensler and Covington & Burling’s Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic-policy chief and deputy Treasury secretary under Clinton.

Who could McCain pick? The Republican bench is stripped clean; Bush is already operating with sub-C-list people. The few competent people on the right —people actually interested in running a country rather than running for election—are already so battered and bruised. Why on earth would they want to go for another eight rounds?

Could you imagine the telephone call to Colin Powell? Or Christine Todd Whitman?

“Hi General Powell! How’d you like to be the Secretary of State again?”


“We even have a war or two more planned. UN time again? I’m sure serving under both President McCain and President Palin will be a blast!”

“I’ll pass.”

Even the Republican Press Secretaries are fed up with being in government. Part of this is just fatigue after eight years of “running” things, however incompetently. Part is, while those on the left or center were busy studying things like economics, engineering, political science and medicine, the right-leaning kids were fighting over leadership of the College Republicans. The latter is a good plan to get lots of people able to win elections, but not run a country.

If McCain really is the better man, the team he’ll have to use to enact his vision would be totally unequal to the challenges. Even if Obama picks the worst among his available choices, he’ll assemble a vastly better team than McCain.

RSS icon Comments


This is why I've been supporting Obama from day one; he doesnt strike me as someone that would fuck us over by appointing a coke buddy from 1978 to an office they have no business overseeing.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 18, 2008 4:38 PM

I gotta say, that Goolsbee guy might be great, but seeing "economic" and "University of Chicago" in the same sentence makes me reeeeeeaaaaly fucking wary.

Posted by Levislade | September 18, 2008 4:40 PM

Obama's economic advisers scare me. They're Walmart apologists, sweatshop lovers, free traders through and through.

Posted by tt | September 18, 2008 4:41 PM

Ah jesus, and Larry fucking Summers? Bleh.

Posted by Levislade | September 18, 2008 4:42 PM

John Bailo is ready, willing and able to serve in any capacity in the McCain administration and sits by his phone, right now, waiting for the call from Big John McC!!!

Posted by The Artist Formerly Known As Sigourney Beaver | September 18, 2008 4:46 PM

All I can say is that The Economist must have a verrrry interesting take on the definitions of "left" and "center".

Also, one cannot be center-leaning: one who is centered does not lean.

Posted by chasman | September 18, 2008 4:53 PM

Furman is a great real-world-policy economist. Isn't the left was all pissed at him precisely because of that? (He likes free trade, sees the net positive effect of Wal-Mart, etc.)

There are good real-world-policy people on the right, too, though. The economist Greg Mankiw comes to mind. And of course Condi Rice could effectively run just about any agency.

Posted by David Wright | September 18, 2008 4:54 PM

I, like you, am to the left of many of the guys on the list. Yes, I find Walmart's labor practices an anathema.

The point is: everyone on this list thinks there is an important role for government and regulation in the health of the economy. Compared the assholes Bush put in charge, and McCain himself, this is a quantum leap in quality. Each can articulate a set of governmental policies they would implement to help stabilize the economy, beyond "less government."

Have you even heard anything about the current SEC head? Check out this NPR podcast, but be prepared to be furious.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | September 18, 2008 5:07 PM

Sec of State Joe Lieberman

Sec of Treasury Phil Gramm

Sec of Heath and Human Services Mike Huckabee

Homeland Security head Rudy Guiliani

(the above aren't worst case scenarios; those are the ones floated by his campaign)

Posted by Just Sayin' | September 18, 2008 5:14 PM

Better qualified economists: Joe Stiglitz (former head of the World Bank and advocate of fair trade), Dani Rodrik (Harvard economist)...

There are plenty of people who Obama could pick who are well vetted and better suited for this economic crisis.

We need not to accept Obama's picks right now. This is the time where we need, we must organize to pressure Obama to move to the left. He's already veering rightward--we need to provide him the backbone to stick to his principles and ditch the right wing neoliberal economics.

Posted by tt | September 18, 2008 5:23 PM

off topic - It's Not 1932 Yet--

Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. stocks rallied the most in six years on prospects the government will formulate a ``permanent'' plan to shore up financial markets, ...Traders erupted into cheers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 617 points from its low of the day after Senator Charles Schumer proposed a new agency to pump capital into financial companies.
#### Hopefully Obama after getting his top advisors together tomorrow will have a plan to both pump in capital AND take the toxic loans NM today he said he would have something more specific tomorrow. I'm looking for a good rollout and a continued economic attack.

Posted by PC | September 18, 2008 5:48 PM

tt @ 10: Both Stiglitz and Rodrik are less enthusiastic free traders than your average economist, but neither of them have specific policy positions which overlap much with either the fair-trade ideas of upper-class-lefties or the anti-trade ideas of lower-class-lefties.

Stiglitz produces more rhetoric than policy ideas, but his most concrete policy position is that the US should unilaterally drop trade barriers to poor countries, thus improving their standards of living by moving as many jobs there as possible.

Rodrik has real policy prescriptions, but they are mostly prescriptions for developing countries about how to use currency manipulation and targeted industrial subsidies to speed development. It's not really clear if and how he thinks these ideas would apply to a developed country like the U.S.

Posted by David Wright | September 18, 2008 6:02 PM

These are awful choices for economic advisors to an Obama cabinet. I can't imagine how any of these choices can be considered left-leaning. Centered, perhaps, but not left. I think it is bone-headed concessions like this causing dips in Obama's polling numbers. He is losing his base by moving to the right. I had to reread these selection predictions because I thought I had misread Obama for McCain.

Posted by gag | September 18, 2008 6:21 PM

so where's this socalled "left" influence in obama's cabinet decisions that is supposed to be a reason to vote for him?

Posted by wf | September 18, 2008 6:59 PM

gag @13, let me put this politely. Quit talking shit that you know is shit, as if you're going to sway some gullible and impressionable minds.

If you're one of the few people out there who are wonkish enough to know who Austin Goolsbee, Jeffrey Liebman, and David Cutler are, then you know damn well how ludicrous it is to mistake these economists for possible McCain cabinet members. This is a bit like saying Bob Rubin, Bob Reich, and Lawrence Summers could have served in the Bush administration.

David Cutler only happens to be the architect of the most pragmatic plan we have so far to achieve some kind of universal health insurance. McCain, on the other hand, has been talking about tax credits or some other "ownership society" crap when it comes to health insurance. If McCain had his way, we may end up with even fewer people covered.

Posted by cressona | September 18, 2008 9:08 PM

Want incompetence?

Re-select Bush/McCain!

Posted by Will in Seattle | September 18, 2008 10:09 PM

As gobs of discerning observers caught on at least a year ago, Goolsbee-Liebman-Cutler is a reaganite dream team. (Furman's a centrist.)

Of course 9/15 changed everything, so it's impossible to project what tack they'd take next year if they had the chance ... or who among them and others would float to the top in Obama's bull session policy tank.

Posted by RonK, Seattle | September 19, 2008 8:53 AM

@David Wright: Have you read Stiglitz?! That is not what he is advocating at all. Maybe you have him confused with someone else, but you are absolutely, completely wrong.

He has advocated putting higher barriers to trade with and pump hot money into foriegn countries. He has advocated to create a full functioning economy by allowing microloans, not massive shifts of capital from the 1st world, eliminating the 1980s policies of the IMF and WB that were put in place by Reagan, to disaterous consequence.

Have you been drinking the kool-aid with John Bailo?

Posted by Original Monique | September 19, 2008 8:55 AM

@myself: poorly worded..

"He has advocated putting high barriers to trade with foriegn countries and not allowing hot money to be pumped in at all"

damn commenting in a rush!

Posted by Original Monique | September 19, 2008 8:59 AM

The fact of the matter is that none of these advisers will have the ability to make decisions entirely on their own, it will go through a vetting process that will take into account the political implications of any decision, which you may not like but it is the way it works. I would rather have smart people making these decisions rather than the cronies who have so far been making them. One final thing, although you may disapprove of centrist policies, the majority of the country falls into that category, the pendulum always swings fastest in the middle, and that is why we have so many wacked out laws.

Posted by WA | September 19, 2008 10:50 AM

Original Monique @ 18-19: I stand by my assessment of Stiglitz. Go take a look at this interview, for example.

He does use the words "fair trade" and a lot of other progressive rhetoric, but his policy prescriptions are not about decreasing trade. On the contrary, he complains that the US uses subsidies to unfairly increase the US share of the market. He complains the that US uses its outsize negotiation power to open forgeign markets to US companies without having to open the US market to foreign competition. He complains that the US uses intellectual property law to effectively protect the interests of US players at the expense of the interest of foreign players. I agree with him on all counts, but you will not that, were these situations to be remidied, the result would be that more production occurs overseas.

He concludes the interview by saying "If we had a fairer trade regime, America as a whole would benefit. We are keeping out cheaper goods from abroad that would help our consumers, make them better off, assist developing countries, and even help our own growth." Notice what he means here by "fairer trade regieme" is increased trade.

Posted by David Wright | September 19, 2008 12:30 PM

Defense Secretary Gates is actually one of the Bush appointees that's done a pretty good job. I wouldn't mind seeing him staying in his post to keep cleaning up after Rumsfeld.

Posted by Martin H. Duke | September 19, 2008 12:33 PM


I'd happily hear suggestions of economists to the left of Stiglitz. You're right--he does advocate increased trade. But that trade is immeasurably fairer than the trade agreements we currently have. I would hope (hah! that fucking word...) that Stiglitz's trade policies would include more effective labor and environmental protections than the shit we have today. Not effective enough, but movement is more important than a Sisyphean effort to perfection. I think you're right to distinguish between rhetoric and real difference from neoliberalism. Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't Stiglitz moved to the left since he was hired at and then quit the Bank? Hopefully his own momentum would continue...

I know that commentary is full of contradiction, so uhh sorry?

I stand by my suggestion of Rodrik. Indeed his focus is on policy and economies of non-post-industrial countries, but who better to sit on our side of the table to enforce a "don't rape the workers and natural resources of other countries" policy?

Posted by tt | September 19, 2008 3:18 PM

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