Obama Names New Top Economic Adviser

President Barack Obama named Gene Sperling as his new National Economic Counsel director. Sperling will be move over from Treasury to replace Lawrence Summers.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We begin this hour with new numbers and a new face in the White House. First, the numbers. The unemployment rate is down sharply, but fewer new jobs were created last month than expected. And in the White House, President Obama announced the new head to his economic team, and his mission is to try to improve those numbers.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama was able to celebrate some positive news on the economic front today, as the unemployment rate dropped from 9.8 to 9.4 percent. But Mr. Obama says, even though the economy's recovering, there's a lot of work left to do.

President BARACK OBAMA: Our mission has to be to accelerate hiring and to accelerate growth. And that depends on making our economy more competitive so that we're fostering new jobs and new industries and training workers to fill them.

HORSLEY: To help in that effort, the president appointed Gene Sperling director of the National Economic Council. He'll replace Larry Summers, who returned to his teaching post at Harvard last month. Mr. Obama notes Sperling has held the director's job before during the Clinton administration. Sperling joked in a 2006 speech that assignment began awkwardly when his 5'5" frame was dwarfed behind a lectern set up for the 6'2" President Clinton.

Mr. GENE SPERLING (Director, National Economic Council): I just got up on my tiptoes as high as I could.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPERLING: And so on live TV, the leader of the free world tapped me on the shoulder and then he kicks a little button and a step would come out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPERLING: And so that was my first 10 seconds of being the national economic adviser.

HORSLEY: There was no repeat of that today. Sperling didn't even approach the lectern. But Mr. Obama praised his new adviser's intelligence and his work ethic. So did Berkeley economist Laura Tyson, who was Sperling's boss at the council in the early 1990s.

Professor LAURA TYSON (Economist, UC Berkeley): Gene is a workaholic. He works morning, noon and night and he is a great asset in terms of getting the job done.

HORSLEY: Sperling's biggest job in the Clinton years was helping to turn budget deficits into surpluses, often through negotiation with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Prof. TYSON: He has a history of working with a Republican Congress, so that experience should serve him well in this round.

HORSLEY: For the last two years, Sperling's been an adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. He helped broker the tax cut compromise with Republicans during the lame-duck session of Congress. Some liberals don't like that compromise or the big paycheck Sperling received from Goldman Sachs in 2008. Dean Baker, of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, also believes Sperling's commitment to deficit reduction is misplaced, when the real problem now is unemployment.

Mr. DEAN BAKER (Center for Economic and Policy Research): You've had this focus on the deficit that just is completely out of line with the reality, and I worry that, you know, Gene is one of the people that I won't say ascribes to that 100 percent, but I think ascribes to that maybe 70 percent.

HORSLEY: In that 2006 speech, Sperling described himself as a pro-growth progressive, which means he's concerned with both the size of the economic pie and the way it's divided up.

Mr. SPERLING: The notion that a rising tide should lift all boats is the core aspiration for what economic policy should be in our country.

HORSLEY: Sperling's Clinton-era colleague Laura Tyson calls him a progressive centrist. That label might also be applied to President Obama in this second half of his term. Tyson says the goals are still progressive, but the means to get there have a pro-business tilt.

Prof. TYSON: You have to bring along the business community. You have to bring along the private sector because the private sector is the generator of jobs.

HORSLEY: The private sector is generating jobs again, more than a million of them last year. The president notes that's the strongest record in four years. Still, the country needs to pick up the pace of hiring if it's to help the millions of Americans who are still out of work.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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