The U.S. Treasury Department is going to need a new boss soon. Timothy Geithner has been fairly clear that four years as Secretary of the Treasury is quite enough for him. That means it’s speculation season and time to figure out who will fill the desk on Pennsylvania Avenue (the Treasury’s located at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue – just next door to the White House) after Geithner tenders his resignation.
The two lucky “bachelors” in the Treasury Secretary Dating Game are Erskine Bowles and Jacob “Jack” Lew; these are about the only two names that anyone’s seriously throwing around. So let’s start sizing up our contestants.
You may recognize Erskine Bowles from a little thing called the Simpson-Bowles Commission, aka The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Created by President Obama to identify strategies to cut the national debt, the Simpson-Bowles commission came up with a widely cited proposal for a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases. Bowles would be a good choice if you’re looking for someone who can work across the aisle. Budget hawk and almost-veep Paul Ryan was a member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and calls Bowles “my favorite Democrat.” Perhaps for the same reasons that Ryan likes him, Bowles is not a favorite of the left set. Though, as policy blogger Stan Collender points out, Simpson-Bowles wasn’t exactly a hit with either party. Bowles is on the board of directors at both Morgan Stanley and General Electric, which gives him both “Street cred” and some of the same conflict-of-interest criticisms that were leveled at Hank Paulson, who was the head of Goldman Sachs before taking up the mantle of Treasury Secretary. That said, even though Bowles is no “Goldman” boy, he’s a private equity man.
Jack Lew, by some estimates, is Obama’s favorite. He’s currently the White House Chief of Staff, and was the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. He’s not the Republican darling that Bowles could be, what with working for the Obama administration, the Clinton White House, and serving as senior policy advisor to Tip O’Neil – it doesn’t get much more “blue” than that. Though Lew may actually see some bipartisan love. House Majority Leader, and Republican extraordinaire, Eric Cantor was extremely complimentary of Lew during the previous debt-ceiling debate. He could also be seen as “pro-business” since he served as the chief operating officer of Citigroup Alternative Investments and was on the record saying that he didn’t believe that deregulation led to the financial crisis. Both of those items seem fairly red-friendly.
Both Bowles and Lew are insiders with political experience, though neither have the crisis-management skills that Geithner had when taking office. Both are wonkish and can claim some bipartisan adoration. By picking Bowles, Obama could be signaling that he’s willing to negotiate with Republicans. Choosing Lew would also signal that he’s willing to negotiate, just not on everything. It’s a tough call on who’s better for the job. Bowles seems to be the sweetheart right now, based on all the media coverage he’s getting; however, I wonder if he can sell the Simpson-Bowles policies in a way that everyone will find palatable. I like some of the aspects of Simpson-Bowles, but looking under the hood reveals some painful features that could be politically unpalatable for both sides.
The one thing that I can say for certain is that I’m glad that I’m not being asked to take over as Treasury Secretary.