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Obama Names New Top Economic Adviser

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama was able to celebrate some positive news on the economic front today, as the unemployment rate dropped from 9.8 to 9.4 percent. But Mr. Obama says, even though the economy's recovering, there's a lot of work left to do.

P: Our mission has to be to accelerate hiring and to accelerate growth. And that depends on making our economy more competitive so that we're fostering new jobs and new industries and training workers to fill them.

HORSLEY: To help in that effort, the president appointed Gene Sperling director of the National Economic Council. He'll replace Larry Summers, who returned to his teaching post at Harvard last month. Mr. Obama notes Sperling has held the director's job before during the Clinton administration. Sperling joked in a 2006 speech that assignment began awkwardly when his 5'5" frame was dwarfed behind a lectern set up for the 6'2" President Clinton.

BLOCK: I just got up on my tiptoes as high as I could.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And so on live TV, the leader of the free world tapped me on the shoulder and then he kicks a little button and a step would come out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And so that was my first 10 seconds of being the national economic adviser.

HORSLEY: There was no repeat of that today. Sperling didn't even approach the lectern. But Mr. Obama praised his new adviser's intelligence and his work ethic. So did Berkeley economist Laura Tyson, who was Sperling's boss at the council in the early 1990s.

P: Gene is a workaholic. He works morning, noon and night and he is a great asset in terms of getting the job done.

HORSLEY: Sperling's biggest job in the Clinton years was helping to turn budget deficits into surpluses, often through negotiation with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

P: He has a history of working with a Republican Congress, so that experience should serve him well in this round.

HORSLEY: For the last two years, Sperling's been an adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. He helped broker the tax cut compromise with Republicans during the lame-duck session of Congress. Some liberals don't like that compromise or the big paycheck Sperling received from Goldman Sachs in 2008. Dean Baker, of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, also believes Sperling's commitment to deficit reduction is misplaced, when the real problem now is unemployment.

BLOCK: You've had this focus on the deficit that just is completely out of line with the reality, and I worry that, you know, Gene is one of the people that I won't say ascribes to that 100 percent, but I think ascribes to that maybe 70 percent.

HORSLEY: In that 2006 speech, Sperling described himself as a pro-growth progressive, which means he's concerned with both the size of the economic pie and the way it's divided up.

BLOCK: The notion that a rising tide should lift all boats is the core aspiration for what economic policy should be in our country.

HORSLEY: Sperling's Clinton-era colleague Laura Tyson calls him a progressive centrist. That label might also be applied to President Obama in this second half of his term. Tyson says the goals are still progressive, but the means to get there have a pro-business tilt.

P: You have to bring along the business community. You have to bring along the private sector because the private sector is the generator of jobs.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.