Politics & Government

Clinton's economic advisers served her husband

Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks at the former Fairless Hills Steel Works in Fairless Hills, Pa.
Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks at the former Fairless Hills Steel Works in Fairless Hills, Pa. John Costello / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton's campaign slogan of "ready on day one" extends to her economic team. She's surrounded herself with economic counselors who advised her husband during the booming 1990s.

Clinton's own business experience is limited to six years on the board of directors of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. That period from 1986 to 1992 — while her husband was governor of Arkansas — doesn't get a single mention in her autobiography "Living History."

The next best gauge of her economic prowess comes from the composition of her team of economic advisers. She's counting on big names from Bill Clinton's administration, whose economic hallmarks were deficit reduction, a budget surplus and opening up global trade.

Gene Sperling, Hillary Clinton's closest economic adviser, highlights those accomplishments in a recent book. He's the former head of President Clinton's National Economic Council. In 2005 he laid out many of what became Clinton's campaign themes in a book called the "The Pro-Growth Progressive."

The wonkish book is part policy recommendation and part memoir. Sperling touches on themes such as the fruits of fiscal discipline and deficit reduction. But he spends the most time on forging a new consensus about trade.

Noting its critics, Sperling writes favorably of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And he recalls having President Clinton dragged from the White House shower to take a phone call from him in a commandeered women's bathroom in China. Sperling had called the president to report that he'd won concessions needed for the administration to approve China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

That entry gave China much greater access to the world's largest economy, ushering in an era of lower prices for U.S. consumers but also the end of many U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The pro-trade views of Sperling, who writes a regular column for the Bloomberg financial wire service, seem at odds with candidate Clinton's recent call for "a pause on trade."

Her recent claim that she opposed NAFTA in private White House councils, meanwhile, is undermined by the newly released appointment schedule of her years as first lady. It shows that she made closed-door pitches for the trade agreement, which led to the elimination of tariffs on all trade among Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Clinton also gets economic advice from former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the chairman of the executive committee of Citigroup, the nation's largest bank.

In his memoir, "In an Uncertain World," Rubin noted proudly that the federal budget was balanced in 1998 for the first time in 30 years, while growth soared, inflation dipped and unemployment fell from 7 percent to 4 percent in the Clinton years.

"That success created immense anger on the part of some conservatives, who saw a policy they decried lead to conditions they said wouldn't occur," Rubin wrote.

Other familiar faces advising Clinton include Laura Tyson, who headed President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, and investment banker Roger Altman, who resigned from the Treasury Department in 1994 amid a controversial investigation into the Clintons' real estate dealings.

As for her own expertise, one economic issue defines Hillary Clinton — her failed bid to push through a national health care overhaul in 1993-94. That effort, and her ongoing involvement in this field, has shaped her understanding of the medical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

Even her detractors recognize her grasp of a campaign issue that most Americans define as a top concern.

"I think that was evident when she announced her own (health care) plan," said Karen Ignagni, the CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, the powerful lobby for health insurers.

But Clinton no longer monopolizes health care as an issue, Ignagni said.

"To be very objective about it, both candidates demonstrated issue acumen, passion for the issue and a real understanding of the data that is driving the issue," she said, referring to Clinton and her rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.


Adviser Gene Sperling on the fruits of fiscal discipline.

Sperling on urban blight and housing crisis.

Clinton's autobiography is silent on Wal-Mart. Here's what she said as a board member.

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