Last night at a political meeting in my neighborhood, progressive writer and occasional Huff Post blogger David Sirota used the addition of centrist economist Jason Furman to the Obama team as an object lesson in placing too much faith in politicians. "Barack Obama is an empty vessel," Sirota said, and then mixing his metaphors he added that Democrats have been projecting onto Obama's character what they want to see. Sirota's tone was utterly dispassionate; he said he didn't begrudge Obama doing what it takes to win the election. For Sirota, the rise of Furman proves a central argument of his new book The Uprising--that real political and social change begins on the city and state level. Here Sirota and his activist audience were in perfect agreement, and it was the current local issues like the impact of the doubling in size of the Safeway that people were talking about. Even in this politically-engaged group, few people had heard of Jason Furman, and that fact should be another object lesson--this one for the media and pundits.
The urge to shake the Furman cup and read the tea leaves is irresistible, nevertheless. In the few days since the announcement of Furman as Obama's chief economic adviser, political and economic observers have suggested two different explanations. The first is a familiar narrative: in predictable Democratic mode, Barack Obama is tacking toward the political center so that he can win in November. I reject this thinking, because such a self-confident man as Obama would disdain such maneuvering -- at least for now. Sirota's observation is subtler reasoning, with which I partially agree. Yes indeed many Democrats have been projecting onto Obama what they want to see. But the ascendancy of an economist who has praised Wal-Mart and who finds merit in lowering the corporate tax rate does not necessarily mean that Obama is selling out the liberal progressive platforms he ran on during the race for the Democratic nomination.
Observers need to look not at the tea leaves but at the cup. Jason Furman's economic views tell us little about a theoretical Obama presidency's economic tilt because, for one thing, Obamanomics are still a work in progress. With the sometimes artless confidence of his generation, Furman admitted as much at least twice in his debut on the press conference call circuit Tuesday. In answer to a question from Slate's John Dickerson about "pay as you go," Furman said, "Over the course of the campaign these things do tend to get fleshed out -- further." Later he said, "In terms of tax credits, you'll hear more over time. . . He [Obama] will tell you at the same time how that proposal will be paid for."
If Obama's own thinking on economic issues is fluid, for us to draw conclusions is pointless. What Jason Furman does give us, however, is a preview of an Obama White House team. Furman is young (thirty-seven); he is smart without the baggage of egoism that intelligence sometimes entails; he is a team player; he is not hyper-partisan. This is the personality and demeanor that Obama likes to have around him. Many of the movers and shakers in an Obama presidency will be just like Jason Furman. At the press conference, these Furmanic traits were amply displayed. The Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet, who always gets straight to the heart of the matter, asked, "What does he [Obama] still need to know? Is this part of your portfolio, Mr. Furman?" Jason replied, "Sure. It is certainly a part of my portfolio -- to kick around different points of view, the way that he's told me he likes to figure economics and make decisions." Therefore, whatever Jason Furman's own economic views, he is comfortable (that inner confidence again) with the possibility, the likelihood, that a President Obama might not agree. The extraordinary facet of Furman's campaign press debut was his low-key nonpartisanship. At one point, he even made allowances for the current administration. "George Bush has had some bad luck with some aspects of the economy," Furman said. When was the last time you heard a member of a Democratic campaign team admit to anything like that?
The debut of Jason Furman says little about Obamanomics but much about Obama, who apparently is wise enough to know what most leaders in any sphere learn only the hard way -- that the top experts usually make poor advisers. Such people, the men and women preeminent in their fields, have earned reputations because they have dedicated themselves to a single line of thinking. It is his or her own point of view and not the larger world of viewpoints that a top name is used to putting forth. Therefore, it was a smart Obama move to reach below the level of a Rubin or Bernstein, a Summers or Galbraith.
Now Jason Furman is still a work in progress. Little has been made of the fact that Austan Goolsbee answered most of the press questions on the Tuesday conference call. At one point, when Jason faltered, Austan moved quickly in to rescue him. On Tuesday it was clear, however, that Jason Furman is more intelligent than Austan Goolsbee and that he will likely polish up more beautifully than Goolsbee has done. If the Obama policy team includes figures as promising as Furman, watching them step forward is going to be great political theater.