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So Is Roger Altman Replacing Larry Summers or Not?

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

Anyone interested in this question has no doubt read about Altman's multiple White House visits to discuss relieving Larry Summers as head of the National Economic Council (NEC). And yet, here we stand, just days from Summers's planned departure--NEC staffers have been busy writing exit memos, as I understand it--without an announcement about his replacement. Here's how White House press secretary Robert Gibbs summed up the state of play at Monday's briefing: 

Q And just a question -- Larry Summers gave a farewell speech today at a think tank, and I’m just wondering how the decision-making is going on his replacement.  Do you still hope to do that before the end of the year?
MR. GIBBS:  Look, I will say that it is -- I’m not sure that that’s going to get done by the end of the year.  Obviously, a whole host of legislative -- lots of legislative work around the lame duck with a budget, taxes, START, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the DREAM Act -- there are a whole host of things that have taken up a bunch of bandwidth and a bunch of time.  And it’s unclear to me whether that will get done before the end of the year.

What's going on here? 

My sense from talking to administration officials who work on economic policy is that, while no one at the White House really dislikes Altman, no one is particularly smitten with him either. (That apparently describes Summers's views, too.) Altman lacks an internal advocate willing to go to the mat for him.

Of course, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the guy making the final decision were super-high on Altman. But that doesn't appear to be the case either. "I’ve heard that the president didn’t like his short list, so they're going back to round up people," one official told me recently.

For what it's worth, that doesn't mean Altman is without passionate advocates, including some you might not expect. "I worked with him. Altman is a remarkably able guy," says Paul Begala, the former Clinton aide. "He's really fair. Would not put his thumb on the scale… I hate Wall St."--Altman's current place of employment--"not as much as next guy, even more. But if you could get a guy with that kind of talent..."

My guess--and it's really just a guess, no one has told me this explicitly--is that Altman could end up with the job if the next phase of the search doesn't turn up anyone the White House feels more strongly about and the clock just runs out. But, as I say, he doesn't appear to have wowed anyone in a position to influence the decision.

P.S. The Huffington Post has a piece up today saying the field has narrowed to three candidates: Alman, Treasury counselor (and former Clinton NEC director) Gene Sperling, and Yale president Richard Levin. I hadn't heard Levin's name before, but Sperling may have a shot, depending on who you talk to.

My sense is that Sperling's situation is a little different from Altman's. Unlike Altman, there are people on the economic team who think he's terrific; the hesitation here is more among the political people in the White House, who wonder if he's got the right kind of public profile, that ill-defined mix of star-power/charisma/gravitas, etc. (I wrote about this a bit while trying to game out the successor to Peter Orszag at OMB, where Sperling was also considered. It must be a maddening question for him to face given that he's actually done the job before--and very successfully...)

There's one thing I did want to correct about the HuffPo piece though. The author writes:

The appointment of either Sperling or Altman would cement the administration's symbolic ties to the financial sector. ... Judging by Sperling's record in government and on Wall Street, he would likely favor a policy of lenient regulation of the banking sector. Like Summers, Sperling has ties to Robert Rubin, the former Treasury Secretary, Goldmanite and, more recently, chairman of Citigroup, who pushed for deregulation under President Clinton.
After serving as deputy NEC director, Sperling took the commission's top spot in 1996, overseeing a policy of deregulation of Wall Street. Under Sperling's watch, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, a rule-easing that many believe contributed to the financial crisis less than a decade later. ...


This strikes me as pretty misleading. Everything I've seen and heard covering administration economic policy over the last two years suggests that Sperling has been one of the more hawkish voices within the adiministration when it comes to Wall Street--and on a range of issues, from bonuses/executive pay to the terms of the various financial rescues (to the extent he was involved). Granted, he's not someone who wants to completely level the financial sector, and he has a relatively sophisticated understanding of how it works. But the image of him as a Wall Street tool is just contrary to fact.