Whether it’s Republican Senator John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama taking the oath of office next January, the new president will be facing a huge economic mess. No rescue plan and bail out the world’s governments can throw at crisis will be an instant cure. The problem is huge, the solutions complicated and change comes slowly. This means who the new president chooses as his Treasury Secretaary takes on critical importance from both a policy and a political perspective.
It’s not that the Treasury Secretary will be the new president’s primary economic advisor. The president will be getting input from numerous sources, both from inside and outside the White House. While the Treasury Secretary will be only one of several developing policy, second only to the president, this person will be the Administration’s financial leader.
This is certainly the case today. Newsweek magazine has described the current Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, as the “face of American capitalism” and “the nation’s most powerful leader.” Secretary Paulson is clearly the General in the Administrations battle to resolve the economic meltdown. Given President George W. Bush’s low standing with the public and his lame duck status, the Secretary has eclipsed the President in terms of visibility and influence.
A new president, whether that be Senator McCain or Senator Obama, will be more visible and in command. Yet the economy is only one of the challenges the country faces. The president will serve as commander-in-chief of the war to save the economy, but the Treasury Secretary is likely to remain the general. What kind of person should the new president look for to fill this role?
Ideally, the new Treasury Secretary will understand Wall Street, but not be a part of it. Wall Street barons are the bad guys in this drama. It’s asking too much of the public to trust one of them to don the white hat and save the day. Any insider is going to have too much baggage to be effective and credible when it comes to selling tough choices to Congress and the American people.
Someone closer to Main Street would have a far better chance of pushing through innovative and controversial cures for what ails the economy. Instead of someone good at manipulating capital, the new Treasury Secretary should be someone good at using it to create jobs and build an enterprise. This person should be entrepreneurial, but have a sophisticated understanding of the nation’s economy, it’s impact on every day Amercians and on the world. The incoming Treasury Secretary should have demonstrated the capacity to make tough decisions, articulate a vision and lead an organization.
Politically, the selection for the Treasury cabinet post should symbolize change. The American people should immediately understand that business as usual is over. The appointment should demonstrate the new president’s willingness to think outside the box, to consider new ideas and new approaches. Yet, at the same time, the Treasury Secretary must be credible and solid.
Most good CEOs (and there are some good ones out there) fit this description. They will have worked with Wall Street, but are not a part of it. They understand how policy decisions made in Washington have a practical impact on people across America. There’s a large pool of credible current and former CEOs the next president can call on.
However, none fit the bill as well as former eBay President and CEO Meg Whitman. You can’t get more Main Street than eBay. It’s the digital avenue on which millions of Americans set up stores, shop and transact business. Nor can you get further away from the Wall Street than the Silicon Valley. The former creates wealth by dreaming up new and increasingly esoteric instruments that are designed to manipulate capital; the latter create capital by bringing dreams to life that provide jobs, create wealth and changes the way we live and work.
Ms. Whitman was at the center of the new technology economy for 10 years. When she started there in 1998 the company had 30 employees and revenues of more than $4 million. It’s a lot bigger now. She’s not only been in the marketplace, she helped create one of the worlds biggest marketplaces. That she would, I believe, be the nation’s first woman Secretary of the Treasury is also a plus — she’s not just one of the good old boys.
When asked during the second presidential debate who he would consider for Treasury Secretary, Senator McCain offered Ms. Whitman as a strong possibility. This isn’t surprising in that she is a Republican who has become a trusted, senior adviser to Senator McCain on the economy. Ironically, these facts make her a strong choice for Senator Obama, too. Reaching across the aisle to someone who was close to his opponent would demonstrate Senator Obama’s intention to move beyond old politics. It would symbolize the Obama Administration’s intent to lead a united, bi-partisan effort to get our financial house in order.
It makes sense for Ms. Whitman, too. She’s talked about running for Governor of California in 2010, but that could quickly end her political career. Democrats will have the edge in that race and several strong willing to seize that advantage. Ms. Whitman would be well funded (she is, after all, a billionaire) and a fresh face. She might even have the support of termed out Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even then, success is far from certain. And a loss in her first political foray could make a comeback all the harder.
Serving as Secretary of the Treasury , however, would give Ms. Whitman a chance to build a powerful, positive image as someone capable of dealing with complex challenges. While she’s well known today in some circles, it would make her a national figure with all the stature that entails. Better yet, serving in a Democratic administration would burnish her “post-partisan, above politics” credentials, always a good thing in California politics.
Nor does Ms. Whitman need to rush into state politics. She is only 52 years old. California will still be here if her goal is to be Governor. In the meantime, she’s an ideal choice for either President McCain or President Obama to help save the country.