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January 11, 2011 > Obama names political veteran to top economic post

Obama names political veteran to top economic post

By Julie Pace and Jim Kuhnhenn, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP), Jan 07 - President Barack Obama on Friday named a Washington veteran with a bipartisan track record in the White House to a top economic post, the latest move in a shake-up of Obama's staff following Republican gains in congressional elections.

Gene Sperling's appointment as director of the National Economic Council coincided with the release of the December jobs report that showed the unemployment rate dropping to 9.4 percent, its lowest level in nearly two years.

But job growth fell short of expectations, and Obama said that Sperling, along with other newly appointed members of the economic team, have a challenging task ahead.

``Our mission has to be to accelerate hiring and accelerate growth,'' Obama said during remarks at a window manufacturing plant in suburban Maryland. ``That depends on making our economy more competitive.''

The head of the U.S. central bank, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, also sketched a more optimistic outlook for the U.S. economy on Friday, but cautioned that it would take time for the job market to improve.

Sperling, a counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, is returning to a familiar role. He served as NEC director in Bill Clinton's administration, where he played a key role in the 1993 deficit reduction bill and compromised with a Republican-led Congress on the 1997 balanced budget agreement.

``He's a public servant who has devoted his life to making this economy work - and making it work, specifically, for middle-class families,'' Obama said.

The role gives Sperling broad oversight of the administration's economic policies as the White House contends with near-double digit unemployment and looming legislative battles on the budget and deficit now that Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives and cut into Democrats' majority in Senate.

Sperling takes over the council post from Lawrence Summers, who left the White House last month to return to Harvard University.

Sperling has worked closely with the president and played a key role in budget negotiations and the administration's small business initiatives. Administration officials say Sperling made a strong impression on Obama last month when he helped secure a compromise with Republican lawmakers on a tax cut deal.

Obama also nominated Katharine G. Abraham to his Council of Economic Advisers and Heather Higginbottom as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Those two posts require Senate confirmation. Obama also will elevate economic adviser Jason Furman to assistant to the president for economic policy.

The president spoke at Thompson Creek Window Company in Landover, Maryland, a family-owned business that the White House said took advantage of an initiative in Obama's tax compromise with Republicans that allows businesses to expense 100 percent of their investments in 2011. The president made a direct appeal to other companies, telling them now is the time to capitalize on that opportunity.

``If you are planning or thinking about making investments sometime in the future, make those investments now, and you're going to make money,'' Obama said.

Friday's personnel announcements came amid a wider White House shakeup of top senior leadership. Obama named William Daley, a prominent business executive, as his chief of staff Thursday; press secretary Robert Gibbs is leaving the White House next month to become a paid consultant to Obama's re-election campaign; and senior adviser David Axelrod will head to Chicago next month to lead the re-election campaign, with Obama's former campaign manager, David Plouffe, filling his role at the White House.

Sperling's pragmatism and his work as a corporate philanthropy consultant to Goldman Sachs, where he was paid more than $880,000, has prompted some liberals to voice misgivings about his appointment. He helped the investment bank design an initiative to provide business education to women in developing countries. He also worked with actress Angelina Jolie to develop education programs for children living in conflict-ridden countries.

``It's hard for me to believe someone gives you $900,000 and you don't feel positively disposed toward them,'' said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

But Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research group, defended Sperling as an advocate of policies that help low- and moderate-income families and especially children.

``That's not exactly what comes to mind when this label gets thrown around that he has ties to Wall Street,'' Greenstein said.

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