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Who’s Going to Replace Orszag?

The inside scoop.

The first-day stories on Peter Orszag’s looming departure from OMB highlighted a number of possible successors. Among them: Gene Sperling, now a senior aide to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; Laura Tyson, a Berkeley economist and former Clinton official; Rob Nabors, a top aide to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who served as Orszag’s deputy early in the administration; and Jeff Liebman, a top OMB official who’s been acting deputy since Nabors left.

But, unless the White House decides to broaden its search (more on that later), this appears to be a two-person race between Sperling and Tyson. According to a handful of administration officials I’ve consulted these last few days, both Nabors and Liebman are highly-regarded in Obamaland, and Liebman is positively adored within the Old Executive Office Building (where OMB resides). But neither is viewed is as a first-tier contender for the job.

As for the relative merits of Sperling versus Tyson, they appear to run roughly as follows: Both served as director of the National Economic Council (NEC)—Larry Summers’s current job—under Bill Clinton. The NEC played a very prominent role in the annual budget process in those years, sometimes more so than OMB itself. So both have the relevant experience.

In terms of pure budget mechanics, Sperling probably has the edge, having helped put together eight federal budgets under Clinton from a variety of NEC positions (culminating in director), and having helped put together the first two Obama budgets. (Sperling effectively serves as Geithner’s top lieutenant on fiscal policy matters.) Sperling is also known among administration officials and Capitol Hill veterans as a master at navigating the intersection of politics, messaging, and policy. He was, for example, one of the Clinton administration’s three lead negotiators for the 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement with the GOP Congress—something that looms large now that a new round of painful budget negotiations is in the offing.

On the question of who would better manage the OMB bureaucracy, opinions are somewhat split. Tyson was considered a success as head of the more academic-y Council of Economic Advisers. But her follow-up stint as NEC director came at a difficult historical moment—not long after the 1994 midterm elections handed Republicans control of Congress and led to some disarray in the White House—making it more of a struggle and tougher to evaluate. Tyson also gets points for having served as dean of two prominent academic institutions since leaving government: Berkeley's Haas School of Business and the London Busines School. (Though I should stipulate that the officials I spoke with didn’t know a ton about her tenure as a b-school administrator.)

Sperling’s NEC, which he ran for four years, was by all accounts a highly effective agency —if nothing else, his sheer duration attests to that. But he had a round-the-clock work ethic that sometimes exhausted subordinates. It’s unclear how this aspect of his style would translate to a larger bureaucracy like OMB, though one person who’s worked with Sperling recently says his workaholic reputation is largely a relic of the ‘90s and that he is home most nights to tuck his young daughter into bed.

Meanwhile, administration officials give Tyson the advantage in the somewhat ill-defined “star power” category—a term that came up in a few conversations. In addition to crafting budgets and running a bureaucracy, the OMB director is a spokesman for the president’s economic agenda, after all. Both Sperling and Tyson are experienced on television and effective at dealing with reporters. But Tyson seems to get extra credit in the charisma department.

In both cases, the administration has to be somewhat concerned about the atmospherics of nominating yet another former Clinton official, though there would be some PR benefit to adding a highly-qualified woman to the male-dominated economic team. Likewise, both candidates could face unpredictable confirmation hearings, depending on how big a fight the GOP intends to pick. One can imagine Republicans using Sperling’s hearings to re-litigate the financial-market bailouts, even though he played no role in these decisions at Treasury. Likewise, one can imagine scrutiny of Tyson’s corporate board memberships, particularly her time as a Morgan Stanley director. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a candidate the Republicans wouldn’t try to bloody, however weak the basis. (And both of these are pretty weak.) So this consideration hardly seems dispositive.

Taken together, it’s not obvious that the calculus favors one candidate or the other—at this point the decision seems like it could go either way. Or, for that matter, neither way. Among the people I spoke with, you often hear talk of “expanding the list” to include less orthodox options. The name of Congressman Artur Davis, who recently lost a Democratic gubernatorial primary in Alabama, surfaced earlier this week, and I heard it again on Thursday. Administration officials have also started talking about Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff and current co-chair of the president’s deficit commission. (One potential snag with Bowles: appearing to undermine a project you’ve spent months talking up.)

But the problem with such candidates is that they generally lack the granular, executive-branch budgeting experience of a Tyson or (especially) a Sperling, meaning it could take months for them to get up to speed. And it’s not at all clear that there’s time for that to happen. Even if the Senate were to approve a new OMB director before its August recess—by no means a certainty—that would leave them little chance to settle in before the next budget season, which will be well underway by October. And, of course, one reason the OMB decision looms so large is that the administration’s next budget will be a critical document. It will serve as a guide to solving one of the country’s great economic challenges: cleaning up the fiscal wreckage of the recession and financial crisis. With so much at stake, I’d be surprised if Tyson or Sperling didn’t end up with the job. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic

*Update: I've tweaked some of the language for precision's-sake.

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