Under-reported story of the week: Gene Sperling departs the Obama White House

By on September 15, 2013
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Gene Sperling is the Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. On Friday, President Obama announced that Sperling will be leaving the White House on January 1, replaced by former budget chief Jeff Zients. I would submit that this is — and will remain — the under-reported political story of the week, maybe the month.

The world is focused on American relations with Russia, what will happen next in Syria, the Middle East at large and the Arab Spring, as it should be. Since President Obama took office we have had national discussions about gun control, health care, campaign finance, terrorism, war, spying — and so much more. You could be forgiven for forgetting that Obama was ushered in amid a historical global financial crisis, that the immediate and quick repair of the country’s — and really the world’s — economic engine was Job One.

The country remains moving towards a very slow, but undeniably steady economic recovery. As the recovery has unfolded, Obama has faced critics from the political right as well as the left. It is a fight that continues today, as progressives squirm at the idea of Larry Summers replacing departing Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman.

But even Republicans are forced to admit the truth: that there is in fact a recovery, and modest or not, Obama owns it. This was made real in the presidential elections last year.

Sperling may not be a name a lot of folks have heard outside the Beltway or political circles, but his fingerprints are all over the economic recovery — and Obama’s economic policies in general. He designed the American Jobs Act, as well as the small business tax credit, both of which small business owners loved. He was also the go-to guy in the White House for housing policy, manufacturing policy, and economic help for veterans. You’d be hard-pressed to find a domestic Cabinet-level department where Gene didn’t have a great deal of sway and influence. 

Sperling also served in the Clinton Administration, where he helped craft the Deficit Reduction Acts and helped increase the earned-income tax credit. 

It would be a safe — and obvious — bet to say that the most influential member of the first term Obama Administration who carried over from the Clinton Administration was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. You might argue with Sperling’s departure, that for the second term it is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, who is now the highest ranking former Clinton official in the Obama White House (she was the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House).

I will concede that Sperling’s departure is somewhat personal for me. I worked in the Clinton White House as a well, though in a vastly different capacity than Sperling. He was National Economic Adviser and the deputy director of the National Economic Council. I was a staff assistant for most of my tenure, and most of my friends enjoyed staff-level jobs in the administration or around town. The social circle in which I orbited did not often cross with that of Sperling’s higher-altitude circle. 

But it did. Sometimes. Every once in a blue moon. 

So mostly Sperling’s departure reminds me that I am not in D.C. — that this is a time for a different crew, from a different place, doing different things. 

People ask me today if I miss Washington, D.C., and I try not to lie: I miss it desperately. But I do not miss the life there. The consuming work, the impossible commute, the astronomical housing costs. It is a tough place to raise a family and work in an environment like the White House. And I love my family infinitely more than I love Washington, D.C.

Sperling says he is leaving to spend more time with his family. Since his wife lives in Los Angeles, this time you can probably believe it. I have no doubt that Gene will be in close touch with both Clintons as Hillary prepares to run. If the pace of economic recovery continues, things will be better, but still in great need of improvement. She’ll need a strong economic team. From my view, there’s no doubt who will lead it.