President Obama’s handpicked National Economic Council chair, Larry Summers, is on the way out the door. The last person to man NEC directorship explains what goes into the job and the qualities Obama will need to find in the next director.
A close advisor to President Obama calls you. “Larry Summers will soon leave his job as Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the White House National Economic Council,” this person says. “I’m calling to see if you have any interest in serving the President in that capacity. If you do, I’ll set up a meeting for you with the President.”
You are savvy enough to know that saying yes to the meeting means you’re committed to taking the job if offered. If you don’t want the job you need to say so before the offer is made.
You have heard frequently that Larry Summers has been the President’s top economic advisor, but you don’t really know anything about the job. Here are five things to know about the job of White House NEC Director.
1. The President and his team need an economic policy coordinator. In that role you will be expected to be an honest broker.
Dr. Summers heads of one of three White House policy councils. Each council is comprised of Cabinet members and senior White House advisors. Every policy issue that comes to the attention of the President “belongs” to a policy council. Your counterparts will be General Jim Jones at the National Security Council and Melody Barnes at the Domestic Policy Council. Your primary day-to-day job will be to coordinate for the President the economic policy process for every issue in your domain. Within the Administration you will be the official source of the answer “What is the President’s policy on X?” where X is any economic policy issue.
You and your team of about 20 expert staff will identify questions that need a Presidential decision. You’ll get the President the information and advice he needs to make a decision, and you’ll make sure a decision gets made when it’s needed. You’ll communicate the President’s decision to the rest of the President’s team within the White House and the Cabinet, and you’ll coordinate the implementation of that decision to make sure the enormous and unwieldy Executive Branch does what The Boss wants.
You will chair hundreds of economic meetings and run the economic policy process. You will have the pen on the memos and slides the President sees. You will chair/moderate meetings the President has with his economic team. You will be leading a team of 10-20 powerful and strong-willed Presidential advisors, each of whom is convinced that he or she knows what the President should do on this issue. Some of them will have independent channels in to the President. If these advisors think you are using your process control to shut out their views, they can and will undermine your process. That’s bad for the President and makes your job much more difficult.
The way to address this is to build the trust of the President’s advisors that you can and will be an honest broker. This means letting a Cabinet Secretary directly advise the President even when you strongly disagree with his recommendation. You have an obligation to make sure the President gets accurate information, but a good honest broker places paramount importance on the President getting a wide range of advice from different perspectives.
This economic policy coordination role is an inside job. You will be the hub of economic policymaking within the Obama Administration, but you will often rely on others to interact with the outside world. Sure you’ll do some press from the White House lawn and you may even give an occasional big speech. At times you’ll negotiate with Congress, but you will not always be the President’s lead negotiator. You will have your hands more than full running dozens of meetings and conference calls each week. You will make sure the economic Cabinet members and White House staff are all pulling in the same direction, and get decisions from the President when his advisors are divided.
2. The President may also want a key/primary economic advisor.
As an honest broker you are not expected to be devoid of opinion. If the President wants you this close to him he will need to respect you and trust your advice. You will have physical and bureaucratic proximity to the President, and if you’re good at your job he will seek your advice on a wide range of issues. That Presidential respect and trust does not, however, automatically come with the NEC chair. Dr. Summers has it. You will have to earn it.
3. It’s not just stimulus, taxes, and financial reform.
The White House policy council heads have more policy breadth than almost anyone else in government. Your portfolio will include the macroeconomy, the stimulus and tax debates, trade and international investment, and the implementation of the new financial reform law. But you will also run meetings on farm policy and telecom issues, on GSE reform and infrastructure spending, on the underfunded defined benefit pension system and how to lower gas prices when they spike (good luck on that one). You can delegate some of these to your able deputies, but you will spend hundreds of hours wrestling with impossible choices on issues that are both important and low profile. You will be surprised at how many policy decisions get made by the President, and it will be your job to manage many of them.
4. White House staff jobs are not naturally high-public profile positions.
Dr. Summers has garnered far more public attention as NEC Chair than anyone since Robert Rubin, and far more than his counterparts General Jones and Ms. Barnes. The President may want you to be an important economic spokesperson for him, but he also has a press secretary and communications director, a visible Vice President, several economic Cabinet members, and a Council of Economic Advisers chairman who does a lot of press. You’ll do press from the White House lawn, but don’t assume you will be as visible as Dr. Summers has been. If you want to be on TV all the time, ask for a Cabinet job instead. If you want to testify before Congress do the same. White House policy council heads are not Senate-confirmed and don’t testify.
5. While Cabinet Secretaries are the princes of their domains, you’re just staff.
Every morning each Cabinet Secretary arrives at their fiefdom chauffeured in a government car. Each day they are the most important person in their building.
You will drive yourself to work and begin each day at the White House senior staff meeting in a room of two dozen colleagues who are your bureaucratic equals. You will know that you are all trumped by the President, sitting just ten yards away from you in the Oval. While you will chair hundreds of meetings and conference calls and coordinate the President’s economic team, the upward-facing component of your job will remind you every day that you are just staff. Your job will not be to run an agency, not to manage a staff of thousands, and not to jet around the world as a diplomat. Your job will be to help the President do his job on your issues. You need to be comfortable in a staff role, because if you take this job it will become your life.
One final thing. Tell your family you love them and will miss them greatly. You won’t see much of them for the next couple of years, and when you’re with them you’ll be on your Blackberry every three minutes.
— Keith Hennessey was Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council from 2008 – 2009.