Gene Sperling: Obama's new economic whisperer

JIM KUHNHENN - Associated Press

He has helped write popular television dramas and has stroked many a sweet drop shot on the tennis court. He has written a book about education in developing countries. And now, for the second time in his career, Gene Sperling, never formally educated as an economist, will rise to one of the top economic posts in the U.S. government.

Affable and slightly rumpled, Sperling at age 52 is the Obama White House's new Renaissance man.

In his return engagement as head of the president's National Economic Council, Sperling will oversee the administration's direction of economic policy. He replaces Lawrence Summers, a man whose economic vision he generally shares. But where Summers could be a prickly and intimidating intellectual force, Sperling is more negotiator and explainer, not likely to become impatient with a questioner, whether it's a lawmaker with an agenda or reporters with a deadline.

"Gene doesn't take up as much space in the room as Larry Summers does," said Larry Mishel, an economist who has dealt with both men over the years. That's not a dig at Sperling. "He knows the ropes," Mishel added. "There's no learning curve involved."

And there shouldn't. Sperling has been blending policy and politics since he worked on Michael Dukakis' unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign. He later joined the staff of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, anticipating a presidential campaign in 1992 that never materialized, then he signed on with another Democratic governor, Bill Clinton, as campaign economic policy adviser.

He worked at the White House for all eight of the Clinton years, the last four as director of the National Economic Council — the job that Obama asked him to undertake.

"He helped formulate the policies that contributed to turning deficits to surpluses and a time of prosperity and progress for American families in a sustained way," Obama said Friday in announcing the appointment.

After Clinton, Sperling spent some time as a consultant and writer for television's "The West Wing," the critically acclaimed drama that originally aired on NBC. His name is attached to story lines ranging from anxiety over inaugural addresses to worries that the show's fictional president was compromising his ideals to be more popular.

Sperling is a policy wonk and a workaholic with a record of pushing difficult policy initiatives and working bipartisan deals. He helped Clinton win a 1993 budget fight that raised taxes on the wealthy while aiming to reduce the deficit. He was a lead negotiator in the bipartisan 1997 balanced budget act that sought to end government red ink by 2002.

"He really cares about public policy, but he's not academic in his approach, he is one who gets things done," said Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook and a former Treasury official during the Clinton administration who worked closely with Sperling.

He has won admiration in some liberal quarters for his strong advocacy of refundable tax credits that assist low-income workers who wouldn't otherwise benefit from tax breaks because they pay no income taxes.

"He has stood out on his efforts to look out for low and moderate income families when tough decisions are made on deficits and the like," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research group.

Sperling's work for Goldman Sachs, where he was paid more than $880,000 as a corporate philanthropy consultant, has drawn some liberal criticism. 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.

He has also raised liberal hackles as an advocate of trade deals that caused some of the biggest divisions within the Democratic party. He worked to give China entry into the World Trade Organization and to help Clinton win support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, moves fiercely opposed by labor.

"He supported fundamentals of the Clinton administration policies which were really wrongheaded," said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Sperling, married with two children, received his bachelor's in political science from the University of Minnesota and his law degree from Yale. At the University of Minnesota, he was captain of the tennis team, and retains his devotion for the game.

He has won a handful of celebrity tennis tournaments in Washington over the years, and he and Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have made annual pilgrimages to Nick Bollettieri's tennis camp in Florida.

By all accounts, Sperling is the better player.