Jeffrey Zients and Obama’s Problematic Distaste For New Blood

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: Jeffrey Zients, acting director and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, testifies before the Senate Budget Committee on the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal on April 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The Obama administration is sometimes slow to make nominations, but they’re already telling people that Jeffrey Zients will succeed Gene Sperling as head of the National Economic Council when Sperling steps down. Zients was Deputy Director of the OMB and “Chief Performance Officer” of the United States for the whole first term, and served as Acting Director of the Obama for the first quarter of 2013. The president likes him a lot and he seemed like the obvious choice for OMB Director, but perhaps in response to criticism of the lack of women working on high-level economic policy they went with Sylvia Matthews Burwell instead. Zients was also strongly considered for the U.S. Trade Representative job, and now it looks like his number’s come up for real this time.

Everyone says good things about Zients, he’s obviously qualified, and his main enemy in DC is the egregious Max Baucus so all around it’s a fine choice. What’s more (unlike, say, Fed Chair) this really is a job where being the guy who the president has the most personal desire to work with ought to be a major considerations.

But you also see here a trend whose overall direction I think a lot of people find lamentable. On the economic team at least, nobody really comes in from the outside. Nobody even really comes in from the outer reaches of the Obama administration. There’s a very strong preference for promoting up within a given pipeline and for doing everything possible to minimize the amount of actual change that happens when even a very senior official such as Sperling leaves. There’s no sense at all that it might be helpful to bring in an intelligent person with roughly Obama’s values who might be able to offer a new set of eyes on the interlocking set of economic and political problems facing the country.

The NEC gig is, I think, genuinely not the place for that kind of “new blood” initiative. But the fact that Obama hasn’t found anyplace to do it is regrettable.