Why Meg Whitman Should Be Obama’s Treasury Secretary

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.

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McCain Should Debate

Senator John McCain says the financial crisis requires the candidates for president to “put country first” and postpone their debate, scheduled for tonight in Oxford, Mississippi. He’s wrong.

Putting country first means sharing your vision for America’s future with voters. What direction do you want to take this country? How do you see America’s place in the world? And if that’s not where we’re at now, how do we get there?

Putting country first is explaining how America should behave on the world stage. What should our priorities be? How should we work with allies? With foes?

Putting country first means explaining in clear, simple and concise language how the current economic crisis impacts our national security and what you intend to do about it. If you could lead your party, what would your solution to the economic crisis look like? Will your fellow Republicans in Congress follow you? If not, what do you do?

Putting country first means explaining why your running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, is qualified to step into your shoes and lead the free world on Day Two.  Putting your country first, and your campaign second, is answering that question without once pivoting to attack your opponent, Senator Barack Obama. The selection of the vice presidential nominee is a test of the presidential candidate’s judgement — and it’s not graded on a curve. You either believe Governor Palin has national policy bona fides or she doesn’t. Putting country first is answering with a simple yes or no, and then explaining the reasons for your answer. If you don’t believe your vice president needs to be fully qualified to be president on Day Two, then explain why you think the risks that creates if something happens to you is justified.

Putting country first means explaining what he would do concerning Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, Iran, Darfur, and on-and-on. Specifics would be nice. Putting country first is articulating a coherent philosophy, strategy, approach or doctrine that places your plans for handling these hot spots into a coherent, consistent context. 

Putting country first is about having a debate that is substantive, devoid of pre-packaged sound bite-sized attacks on your opponent or digressions into meaningless debate over inconsequential distractions like porcine make-up. Putting your country first is talking straight with the American people.

Of course, what’s required of Senator McCain is required of Senator Obama, too. Senator Obama should be required to answer these questions, along with addressing the experience gap between he and Senator McCain. If Senator Joe Biden is qualified to be president, in large part because of his experience on foreign policy, doesn’t that make Senator McCain qualified, too?

I understand the politics of what Senator McCain is doing. Hiding in Washington DC stirring up the already fragile politics surrounding the crafting of the government’s response to the economic crisis is a good way to overcome campaign challenges. That this tactic insults President George Bush by implying his administration is incapable of solving the problem without Senator McCain’s help is immaterial. It creates the impression Senator McCain is a hands-on, above-politics leader. That it interferes with negotiations among those members of Congress who matter is besides the point.

What’s ironic about all this is that Senator McCain has never been a leader on economic issues. If the crisis involved responding to another Russian intrusion into Georgia, having Senator McCain might be useful. He’s a proven record and substantial experience on those kinds of issues. But when it comes to helping resolve the mess in the nation’s securities, banking and financial markets he has been, and remains, a back-bencher.

Senator McCain’s Washington, D.C. photo opportunity is all about rebooting a campaign that had been floundering in the face of the meltdown on Wall Street. It’s a savvy move politically, and it might work. When my computer has a problem, the first thing I do is reboot it which often solves the problem.

But running for president isn’t the same as maintaining a PC. It’s about demonstrating the judgement and temperment required to lead the United States of America. It’s about leading the free world. One test of putting country first means forgoing what is politically savvy to what’s in the national interest. By undermining tonight’s debate and interfering with problem solving in Washington, Senator McCain fails that test.