Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Meet the seven key economic advisors that will help Joe Biden lead through the COVID crisis

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As the U.S. descends into its ninth month of economic crisis, millions of Americans who have lost their jobs face imminent eviction, the end of a federally-backed unemployment extension, and a lack of certainty about where their next meal will come from. Without a comprehensive stimulus package in sight, President-elect Joe Biden and his economic team must now prepare to shoulder an unprecedented burden on top of the COVID-19 health crisis when they enter office in January.

Indicating that economic recovery will be a top priority during his first 100 days in office, Biden has wasted no time in filling out his team, a group of advisers that he’s worked with and come to trust through his 50 years in public service. But some argue that in an attempt to pull the U.S. out of its pandemic-adjacent slump, the President-elect’s administration has relied too heavily on the old guard, borrowing heavily from the Clinton and Obama administrations, instead of including new and progressive voices on the team that will shape economic policy for at least the next four years. 

“I know times are tough, but I want you to know that help is on the way,” Biden said as he announced his team last week. “From the most unequal economic and job crisis in modern history, we can build a new American economy that works for all Americans, not just some.”

Some choices, like former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen as treasury secretary, were both expected and accepted by the dueling factions of the Democratic party. Other names, however, provoked anger and confusion from progressives. 

Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, has long been a staunch critic of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ economic policy and has proposed (at least passively) cutting social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. During a 2012 C-SPAN interview, she explained her opinions: “If we’re going to have a deal to address long-term deficit reduction, we need to put both entitlements on the table as well as taxes.”

“We should have savings on entitlements, and the Center for American Progress has put forward ideas on proposals to reform the beneficiary structure of Social Security—some of our progressive allies aren’t as excited about that as we are,” she continued. 

Still, progressives mostly expressed befuddlement at the pick and not outright ire. “Neera Tanden is not a pick progressives would have chosen, but she’s better than [Biden’s former chief of staff] Bruce Reed,” Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement. “Tanden’s on the record over the past several years pushing back against nonsensical worries about the deficit.” 

So who will be a part of Biden’s A-Team, and how will they work to end the COVID-adjacent economic dip? Here are the people he’s hoping to nominate, and the roles they’ll take on if approved. 

Janet L. Yellen, treasury secretary

As head of the treasury, Yellen will have a say in everything from climate change prevention to tax policy to stimulus spending. The increasingly-outsized role of treasury secretary requires both nuance and versatility, but Yellen is well known and trusted amongst D.C. leaders thanks to her four years as chair of the Federal Reserve and another 15 serving at the national bank.

Yellen has indicated that a large stimulus package will be her first line of attack against recession. “Lost lives, lost jobs, small businesses struggling to stay alive are closed for good. So many people struggling to put food on the table and pay bills and rent. It’s an American tragedy,” she said during a recent speech in Delaware. “And it is essential we move with urgency. Inaction will produce a self-reinforcing downturn causing yet more devastation.” 

If confirmed by the Senate, Yellen would be the first woman to hold the role of treasury secretary, and the 74-year-old labor economist has a good chance of making it through a Republican-held Senate. Republicans have praised her qualifications—something that sets her apart from other members of Biden’s economics team. 

“I believe that she would get a favorable view,” said senator Chuck Grassley. Senator John Cornyn, who acts as a top adviser to majority leader Mitch McConnell also said he believed she was qualified for the job. “I think she’s fine. I don’t have any problems with her,” Cornyn said, “My attitude is that absent conflicts of interest or other, you know, lack of temperament and uber partisanship, that beyond those that the vice president should get the people that he wants.” 

Yellen was also able to win the support of almost a dozen GOP senators in 2014 when she was nominated to head the Federal Reserve.

During her confirmation hearing, Yellen will likely face tough questions from the GOP about emergency lending programs that were created during the March COVID stimulus bill but is otherwise expected to breeze into her new role.

Wally Adeyemo, deputy treasury secretary

Adeyemo, a Nigerian-born attorney who served as a senior international economic adviser during the Obama administration and then as president of the Obama Foundation, is Biden’s pick for second in command at the Treasury.

Adeyemo has a long history with and deep institutional knowledge of the U.S. Treasury. He also served there as senior adviser and deputy chief of staff during the Obama administration.

But while Adeyemo appears to be a safe, establishment choice, he also has a history of supporting open trade with China. He helped craft the since-rejected Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal—ideas that are no longer as in vogue in Congress as they once were.

Some on the left also take pause at Adeyemo’s post-Obama administration choice to join BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, as a senior adviser and chief of staff to CEO Larry Fink. 

Still, Adeyemo has a history of straddling two worlds and merging the different factions of the Democratic party. He began his career at the Treasury in 2008 working for then-secretary Timothy F. Geithner and was able to move seamlessly to work under more progressive senator Elizabeth Warren at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau where he served as her chief of staff. Both Warren and Geithner have highly praised the work he did for them. 

When introduced by Biden last week, Adeyemo touched on his goals of bolstering America’s middle class and reducing income inequality. “In California’s Inland Empire, where I had grown up in a working-class neighborhood, the Great Recession hit us hard,” he said. “We were one of the foreclosure capitals of the United States. The pain of this was real for me.”

If nominated, Adeyemo will be the first Black American to serve in the role. 

Cecilia Rouse, chair of Council of Economic Advisers

Like many of Biden’s economic picks, Rouse has a long history in the White House. The current dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs served on President Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council and then on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, the group she is expected to chair under Biden. 

In her acceptance of Biden’s nomination last week, the economist said her focus would be on future of labor and workers, including short-term pandemic-related issues and longer-term economic shifts towards a gig economy. 

She’s spent much of the pandemic advocating for workers who she feared might face the same long-term unemployment issues that those in the 2008 Great Recession did. She pushed to institute a new law “that mandates (and perhaps subsidizes) paid sick leave, which has been shown to reduce turnover, increase productivity and lower overall health care costs for employers.”

Biden has also emphasized Rouse’s background in the economics of education, which is an increasing concern as schools around the country remain closed, disproportionately hurting low-income students. 

In Delaware last week, with Biden by her side, Rouse called COVID-19 a “devastating crisis” but said that it also presented “an opportunity to build a better economy in its wake—an economy that works for everyone, brings fulfilling job opportunities, and leaves no one to fall through the cracks.”

If approved by the Senate, Rouse would be the first Black CEA chair. Rouse was previously confirmed to become a member of the CEA in 2009 when Democrats controlled the Senate but has not had to face a hearing in front of the Republican-led body. 

Early in his term, President Trump downgraded the CEA chair role from a cabinet position but Biden said last Tuesday he would reverse that decision. 

Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein, Council of Economic Advisers

Jared Bernstein, known around D.C. for his affable nature, is a longtime economic adviser and friend to Biden. He served during the Obama administration as the former vice president’s top economic advisor. Since leaving the White House, he’s taken on the role of senior fellow at left-leaning think tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

He also appeases the more progressive wing of the Democratic party. He’s pushed for both a wealth tax and a jobs guarantee, two ideas that are far to the left of Biden’s economic policy. “His inclination on many economic issues has been close to agreement with Bernie Sanders’s,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s 2020 campaign manager, told the Atlantic earlier this year

Heather Boushey, the president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, also has a long history in the Beltway. She’s worked with and testified in front of Congress as an economist for the Center for American Progress, the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and the Economic Policy Institute. In 2016, it was announced that she would take the role of chief economist on the Clinton-Kaine transition team had Clinton won, and she served as an economic counselor to Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. 

Boushey runs in a small circle with Bernstein, Yellen, and other progressive economists who believe that expanding social safety net programs to help the poor and middle class will improve the economy overall. In her research and work, Boushey has focused on the importance of the family unit and support for working mothers, something that will likely continue in the White House. 

Neera Tanden, director of the Office of Management and Budget

Though Tanden is perhaps Biden’s most controversial pick, she’s also well known around the White House and Capitol building. And her various controversies haven’t stopped Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris from praising her publicly.

“Like me, [Tanden] was raised by a single mother and knows firsthand the importance of having an economy that treats all people with dignity and respect,” Harris tweeted Friday. “I know with her at the helm of the Office of Management and Budget, our budget will fully reflect our values.”

Tanden’s social media activity, which includes bullying, has also sparked controversy. But Biden has said her tweets should not be disqualifying. “That disqualifies almost every Republican senator and 90 percent of the [Trump] administration,” Biden said in an interview with the New York Times. “But, by the way, she’s smart as hell. Yeah, I think they’re going to pick a couple of people just to fight [over], no matter what.”

Tanden served as an advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and many on the left believe that she was behind the movement to end Sanders’ run that year. 

Tanden has spent the last four years at the helm of the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, and before that, she worked in the Obama Administration on the development of the Affordable Care Act as an adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell wrote on Twitter last week that Tanden would be a “sacrifice to the confirmation gods” and stood no chance of being confirmed. 

Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council

Deese is another former Obama economic aide, well known for orchestrating the 2009 bailout of the auto industry. But unlike many of Biden’s other picks, Deese doesn’t have the background of an academic economist and has instead built his career in policy making. 

Under Obama, he served as the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget and the deputy director of the Economic Council before taking a job at BlackRock as the global head of sustainable investing. 

“Brian is among the most tested and accomplished public servants in the country—a trusted voice I can count on to help us end the ongoing economic crisis, build a better economy that deals everybody in, and take on the existential threat of climate change in a way that creates good-paying American jobs,” Biden said.

But once again, the connection to BlackRock has drawn some anger from the more prorgressive wing of the party.

“BlackRock executives like Brian Deese are responsible for financing environmental devastation while profiteering from Black and Indigenous communities,” Vasudha Desikan, political director of Action Center on Race and the Economy, said in a statement. “There is a deep bench of highly qualified economic policymakers of color who are dedicated public servants without compromised histories in the private sector.”

Still, Biden emphasized Deese’s experience working on environmental issues and said he would focus on reimagining a green economy. Deese has said he’s committed to creating green and “good union” jobs and taking the country further than the Paris Agreement requires.

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