Obama dilemma: Wall Street guru or academic for key economic post?

In his weekly radio address and in a press conference just before Christmas, Barack Obama promised to train his “singular focus” on job creation and economic expansion.  However, as has been repeatedly noted over the last two years, no one in the senior levels of the administration has much experience in creating private-sector jobs or meeting payrolls.   The vacancy left by Larry Summers’ resignation as chief economic adviser gives Obama a chance to rectify that with the appointment of a private-sector titan who understands the realities of job growth, but Obama’s base is insisting that anyone with any taint of Wall Street experience will be unacceptable:

The departure of National Economic Council director Lawrence H. Summers, whose last day was Friday, has left a crucial vacancy in the president’s inner policy circle as the economy remains his top domestic focus and shapes up to be the No. 1 issue of his 2012 reelection campaign.

Liberals in the president’s base, who often criticized Summers as a symbol of the administration’s closeness with Wall Street, want an NEC director who would push the White House to challenge the financial services industry and stand up to deficit hawks pushing the White House to cut programs such as Social Security. Business groups and Republican lawmakers, who have charged that the White House is hostile to corporations, want someone with practical business expertise.

And even some in the administration have suggested appointing a person with a business pedigree rather than a background primarily in academia or government.

If Obama’s singular focus is truly job creation, then the choice should be simple: hire someone who has experience in investment and economic growth.  The Washington Post reports that two such candidates are already on the short list, former Clinton official Gene Sperling and investment banker Roger Altman.  Sperling, however, worked for Goldman Sachs in the past, and the term “investment banker” tells us all we need to know why Altman won’t be popular.  Instead, the Left appears to be backing Yale professor and economist Richard Levin, whose entire private-sector experience seems to be a position on the board of American Express.  He has been a professor at Yale since receiving his doctorate there in 1974.

But just how focused on the economy has Obama been?  Summers announced his resignation in September, but agreed to stay until the end of the year to help his successor with the transition.  Summers stopped working on Friday, and Obama hasn’t yet offered the position to anyone else yet, in part because of this tension over the acceptable background of the selection.  Obama had a hundred days to make this decision before Summers hit the road, and he’s had 60 days since the midterm elections made it obvious that voters had tired of Obama’s focus being everywhere else but the economy.

If this is “singular focus,” then Obama is in serious trouble in the second half of his term.  And so are we.