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Obama closes in on naming a new top economic aide

January 4, 2011 | 11:58 am

Sperling President Obama could name a replacement for top economic advisor Larry Summers within days, and is considering candidates with ties to the financial industry as he tries to fill a key position that now sits vacant.

Summers' last day as chairman of the National Economic Council was Friday. His deputy, Jason Furman, has taken over the job as the White House finishes a search that began when Summers announced his resignation in September.

Candidates to replace Summers include Gene Sperling, a former economic advisor to President Clinton who has done consulting work for Goldman Sachs, and Roger Altman, chairman of investment banking firm Evercore Partners and a former deputy Treasury secretary under Clinton. Another possible replacement, economist Richard Levin, is president of Yale University and serves on the board of directors for American Express.

"The president is considering a number of qualified candidates and he has not made a decision or offered a job,” said White House spokesman Jen Psaki. “The most important qualification is finding the right person for the job who can lead the team at this pivotal time in the recovery." . . .

White House officials had hoped to name a new NEC director before Summers left. But the scramble to pass key legislation in the final weeks of the year, including a temporary extension of the Bush-era tax breaks, delayed the search.

The emergence of Sperling as the perceived leading candidate is disheartening to some liberals. After he left the Clinton administration, Sperling earned $887,727 from Goldman Sachs in 2008 for advice on its charitable giving, according to a Bloomberg report.

“Going to Wall Street for your top staffer … is very bad both for policy and for political reasons,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Wall Street to my mind is still the villain here, and good policy would mean reworking Wall Street.”

Sperling has said his work for Goldman involved consulting only on its "10,000 Women" initiative to provide business and management education to under-served women around the world.

Sperling, who headed the NEC from 1997 to early 2001, has worked since 2009 as a counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, so is familiar with Summers' job and the Obama administration’s economic policies. His appointment to the White House post also probably would add to Geithner's increased influence on Obama's economic team.

Obama referred to Sperling in September as "one of my top economic advisors" in praising his work on a small-business jobs bill. And Sperling was a key player in negotiations with Congress over the tax-break  extension.

But Baker said Sperling's work for Goldman was a drawback, even though he thinks Sperling is “an honest guy.”

“His deal with Goldman Sachs doesn’t look good,” Baker said. “You give someone $900,0000 … It’s hard to believe that doesn’t ingratiate themselves to some extent with Sperling.”

 -- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: Gene Sperling, counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, at the White House for signing of the tax cut extension legislation in December. Credit: Associated Press.