President Obama today, as expected, installed Gene Sperling right back where he worked under Bill Clinton, as head of the National Economic Council in the White House.
Here’s what Obama said. Part of it is true, part of it is debatable.
One of the reasons I’ve selected Gene is he’s done this before. This is his second tour of duty heading up the NEC, and in his tenure in the Clinton administration during the late ‘90s, 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. Few people bring the level of intelligence and sheer work ethic that Gene brings to every assignment he’s ever taken . . . So, Gene, we are lucky to have you back at the NEC.
Let’s start with what’s debatable. I’ve never been exactly sure how it is that Sperling and the other Clintonites got themselves branded deficit hawks and surplus makers.
Clinton never really got us to surplus. There was only a “surplus” if you count the money the government was robbing – and robbed under Bush as well and robs today – from the Social Security Trust Fund.
And Clinton increased spending every year he was in office, particularly on cherished social programs, while gutting the defense department with a “peace dividend” to keep the numbers from getting too high. Only we discovered there was no peace.
The final increase in spending, in 2000, was the biggest of all.
The decline in the deficit was largely a result of increasing tax revenues resulting from the expansion that began in 1992 under George H.W. Bush and that was abetted by the extraordinary tech bubble which, when it burst, caused the Clinton recession, which began as Bush took office.
So Sperling’s contribution to “prosperity” is debatable.
What Sperling was really good at was avoiding GOP tax cuts, which he fought relentlessly as the White House point man on the issue and which he will be called upon to scuttle once again.
And he was spellbound by the little boutique programs the Clinton policy shops devised and planted into the budget – where they could grow and grow year after year.
I can remember one briefing he and then-Education Secretary Richard Riley held at the White House, discussing some initiative or another – let’s call it “The Happy Kids Healthy Milk Program.” That’s what they loved to call these things – I mean, who could oppose milk for children?
After the session, I wandered behind the briefing room into the halls of the West Wing, where Sperling and Riley were jabbering about their performance. As I quietly strolled by, I figured I’d hear them towel whipping a bit – “you hit that question out of the park,” or something like that.
Not Gene. The two of them were standing there with dreadfully earnest looks on their faces, Sperling murmuring, “The Happy Kids Healthy Milk Program is a really wonderful initiative, it’s going to make a significant difference in the amount of milk kids drink.”
Oh, they took themselves very seriously, these people.
Which brings us to what’s true about what Obama said – Sperling’s “sheer work ethic.” Fueled by an intravenous line dripping Diet Coke, Sperling works nonstop, has no life, and will pursue Obama’s agenda with a grim sense of mission.
“Gene, we are lucky to have you back at the NEC.” That’s also correct.