Published November 07, 2012
President Barack Obama's re-election victory gives him a second chance to put the U.S. economy on a sound footing but to do so he will need a Treasury chief with sharp deal-cutting skills to get the nation's record debt under control.
The president is expected to move quickly to announce a successor for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has made it clear that he would not serve in a second Obama term.
The new captain of the U.S. economy will play a big role in the challenging task of getting a deficit-cutting plan through the politically fractured Congress where deep divisions hindered the president during much of his first term.
"This Treasury secretary has to guide us through a deal. It has to be someone with deficit credentials and respect from both sides," said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at centrist think tank Third Way. "It has to be someone who challenges the president's party as well."
High on the list of possible choices is Obama's chief of staff, Jack Lew, a government accounting wonk who served as budget director under Obama and President Bill Clinton. Picking Lew would signal to financial markets that Obama is serious about trimming the deficit and reforming the tax code.
The country's accumulated debt now tops $16 trillion and the budget deficit topped $1 trillion for the fourth year in a row in the fiscal year 2012, which ended in September.
However, Lew, a former Citigroup executive, rankled Republican lawmakers when he helped broker a 2011 budget deal that capped discretionary spending and put in place $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, a plan meant to force recalcitrant lawmakers to resolve their deep differences over budget policy.
Some Republican aides said Lew was not a constructive partner in the negotiations, in contrast to Geithner and Obama's previous chief of staff, Bill Daley.
With Republicans maintaining control of the House of Representatives, Obama desperately needs someone who can reach across the aisle.
Erskine Bowles, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff, would fit that bill. Bowles became something of a celebrity in Washington after Obama paired him with Republican Alan Simpson and charged the duo with crafting a plan to slash the deficit.
Obama's decision not to endorse the Simpson-Bowles proposal fully drew fire from Republicans even though the plan called for higher taxes, an idea most Republicans oppose.
The most immediate budget issue for Obama will be tackling the so-called fiscal cliff of $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts that will hit the U.S. economy from the start of next year. Economists widely predict a new recession if Congress does not soften the blow.
It is not clear whether Geithner will stick around long enough to see through a deal to block the austerity measures.
The next Treasury chief will also need to deal with Europe's debt crisis and manage tricky relations with China, America's biggest creditor and its second-largest trade partner.
Geithner is both a financial crisis fix-it guy and global economy expert, having served in a senior international post in Clinton's Treasury and at the International Monetary Fund.
"China only grows in importance for American companies and the U.S. economy. A strong, senior official in the administration who can lead U.S. economic and commercial policy with China is a must," said John Frisbie, the president of the U.S.-China Business Council, which represents about 250 large companies that do business with China.
MENDING BUSINESS TIES
Another big part of the job will be to patch up the Obama administration's relations with Wall Street and the business community.
Banking executives and businesses threw their weight behind Obama's Republican challenger Mitt Romney, upset at what they viewed as Obama's overly heavy regulatory hand.
Wall Street took exception to the new rules born out of the 2007-09 financial crisis, major health care reforms and what they perceived as anti-business rhetoric from the White House.
Candidates who could help strengthen ties with business and show the administration is serious about the business community include Roger Altman, a Clinton-era deputy Treasury secretary and co-founder of investment firm Evercore Partners, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and Laurence Fink, the chief executive of asset manager BlackRock.
Altman cut his teeth at the now-defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers and then joined private equity firm Blackstone Group. He would bring a mix of financial market experience and political savvy to the top job.
Although Democratic senators are supportive of Altman, his previous stint at Treasury could pose a hurdle to winning Senate confirmation. Altman resigned in 1994 after lawmakers challenged his testimony to Congress during hearings into Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater real estate holdings.
Like Altman, Sandberg worked in Clinton's Treasury. She also served as an economist at the World Bank and was previously Google's vice president of online sales and operations.
Fink has extensive Wall Street experience. His firm played a big role helping the government battle the financial crisis by managing a program to sop up toxic assets held by banks.
Though Obama's Treasury pick will be crucial for navigating a host of tricky economic problems, including what to do with government-controlled housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the number one concern for financial markets now is dealing with the looming fiscal cliff.
"The market really isn't focused on anything but a fiscal cliff compromise," said Steve Blitz, chief economist with ITG Investment.
(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Tim Ahmann, William Schomberg and Alden Bentley)