Obama economic team not necessarily on way out

April 8, 2010

Government officials are like professional sports coaches: Most are hired to be fired and fatigue nabs the rest.

Persistent talk about the imminent departures of President Barack Obama’s economics squad leaders, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, will surely prove right, eventually. But the day may be further off than many observers think.

From the get-go, Washington insiders pegged both experienced economic officials as short-timers. Personal tax issues marred Geithner’s confirmation hearing as Treasury secretary. Then stocks tanked when he touted a half-baked version of the administration’s bank rescue plan. And his involvement with bank bailouts as president of the New York Federal Reserve will never be popular.

As for Summers, none doubted his intellectual brilliance, but his appointment as National Economic Council director was considered an ill fit given its mandate to coordinate rather than generate policy. Some party liberals pegged Summers a victim of “cognitive capture” by Wall Street for his past role in deregulation. So recent press reports that he’s unhappy and wants to leave sooner rather than later seem superficially reasonable.

But both serve at the president’s pleasure. And the White House is on a bit of roll. Why tweak a winning team?

Healthcare passed and financial reform is gaining momentum. Then there’s the economy, a former politically toxic asset that is starting to rise in value as recovery takes hold and job growth reappears. Liberal criticism that a deficit-obsessed Summers was wrong to push an $800 billion rather than $1.2 trillion stimulus seems less relevant by the day.

The same goes for arguments that troubled banks should’ve been nationalized. Geithner’s much-derided bank stress tests attracted some $185 billion of private capital and sent bank stocks soaring. His approach to currency discussions with China also looks to be bearing fruit.

While some party activists and union leaders may wish for a house cleaning, there’s no pressing need for the White House to comply. Finding replacements would be tough. Anti-Wall Street sentiment limits the pool of possibilities, particularly at Treasury. Reshuffling existing personnel is problematic, too. Shifting budget chief Peter Orszag to the NEC would be a gift to Republicans, who would use the confirmation hearing of his successor to put the Obama budget deficits on trial.

While Summers and Geithner may possibly desire to leave mid term, there’s little reason to nudge them — if anything, the president should be begging them to stay put.

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