Gene Sperling tapped to head National Economic Council

GENE SPERLING TAPPED TO HEAD NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL…. Any minute now, President Obama will introduce economist Gene Sperling as the new director of the National Economic Council, his second tour in the position after filling the same post from 1996 to 2000. Sperling is currently a senior counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and he’ll replace Lawrence Summers, who returned to Harvard last month.

It’s certainly possible that the Sperling selection will, like the Bill Daley announcement, stir some discontent with the left. Given the fact that Sperling has done work with Goldman Sachs, there will likely be a few critics who’ll say, “Great, another Wall Streeter gets a top post in the administration.”

But Sperling’s background is more nuanced that it might appear at first glance. He partnered with Goldman Sachs in 2008, but did no commercial work — he helped the Wall Street giant establish a charitable project involving spending money in developing countries.

This week, David Corn fleshed out Sperling’s recent history in more detail.

After the Clinton administration ended in 2001, Sperling, according to a former Clinton administration aide, spoke to several “wise men” about what he should do next. As a former NEC director, he was in great spot to cash in. And he received the same career advice from all of these counselors: go to Wall Street for the next eight years, make millions, and then return to public service (when there might be a Democratic president). He didn’t follow this guidance.

Instead, Sperling devoted most of his time to addressing the challenge of global poverty, particularly promoting the need for basic education in developing nations (with an emphasis on educating young girls). He created and led the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations. (The center is now based at the Brookings Institution.) He wrote papers and articles and convened seminars on how the world’s wealthy had to do more (and spend more) to redress poverty in developing nations, especially Africa, where he traveled frequently. He developed a program with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie to push for educating children in regions of conflict.

In 2000, the United Nations had devised the Millennium Development Goals, which included ensuring that every child on the planet could complete primary education by 2015.

Corn talked to one Sperling friend who said, “After having been head of the NEC for Clinton, he could have immediately gone to Wall Street and made a lot of money. That’s what most people in his situation do. But he didn’t. A lot of us who know him scratched our heads about that.”

That’s not to say his background is entirely virtuous — he gave a bunch of lucrative speeches, including some to major players on Wall Street — but the point is Sperling doesn’t fit a caricature.

Even during his tenure as part of Clinton’s team, Sperling wasn’t a Rubin acolyte. He worked to prevent U.S. businesses from exploiting child labor; he championed domestic programs like Head Start and the EITC; and developed a strong reputation for advocating on behalf of lower-income families.

Some of President Obama’s staffing moves are easier to criticize than others, and as I said yesterday, Daley wouldn’t have been my choice for WH Chief of Staff. But Sperling strikes me as a wise choice, and someone who’ll serve the country well.

Update: For more background on Sperling’s perspective, take a look at this piece he wrote for us at the Monthly in 2005. Also, don’t miss this piece from Mathew Miller, who wrote an unpublished profile of Sperling back in 1999.