President-elect Barack Obama got high marks from the White House to Wall Street on Monday for choosing crafty economic policymakers to lead the nation through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
"Brilliant," "outstanding" and "exceptionally talented" were some of the words used to describe his two top choices — Timothy Geithner, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for Treasury secretary, and former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers for National Economic Council director — and that came from Republicans.
"It's hard for me to imagine a better team than this one," said Pete Peterson, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, who chaired the search committee that chose Geithner for the New York Fed. Peterson, a veteran of the Nixon administration, said Geithner, 47, "has everything that anyone could ask for" in a Treasury chief.
Of Summers, 53, he said, "If there's a more brilliant economist in the United States, I wouldn't know who that is."
Both Geithner and Summers were lauded by Republicans and Democrats alike as pragmatists who understand how to use the levers of government in the financial sector — something that both sides agree has become increasingly necessary as the recession worsens.
In addition to Geithner and Summers, Obama announced two other members of his economic team: Christina Romer, 49, a University of California-Berkeley economist, as chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers; and Melody Barnes, 44, a former counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy, as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Taken together, experts said, the first policy team unveiled by Obama represents:
•Academic smarts. Summers is a former president of Harvard; the others have similar academic backgrounds.
•Practicality over ideology. Geithner is seen as a problem-solver, Peterson said. His strength is "listening carefully to what the problem is, and then deciding on a pragmatic basis what ought to be done about it."
•Wall Street smarts without the ties. "You need economists who understand financial markets deeply but don't necessarily come from financial markets," said Jared Bernstein of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "Both Summers and Geithner know the books down there, but they're not of the Street."
House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., called Obama's top choices "modern-day heirs of great economists like Keynes," a reference to British economist John Maynard Keynes, who advocated government intervention to stimulate economic growth.
The question that hung over Monday's unveiling of Obama's economic team — the first of what will be many Cabinet-level introductions — was how much intervention they'll recommend.
Obama wasn't saying, except to say a new stimulus package is "going to be costly."
House Minority Leader John Boehner and some other Republicans warned about new spending. "As we proceed, we should start by listening to the American people, who do not believe increasing government spending is the best way to put our economy back on track," he said.
Greg Valliere, chief political strategist with the Stanford Financial Group, said he understands Obama's position that the nation has only one president at a time. But he said "the financial markets hate uncertainty … a bit more detail would have been well-received."