President Joe Biden on Monday tapped economist Gene Sperling, who served as head of the National Economic Council in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, to oversee implementation of the newly signed $1.9 trillion Covid rescue plan.
Sperling’s job will be to ensure that the money gets distributed quickly and in a way that maximizes its impact and minimizes waste. “Gene will be on the phone with mayors, governors, red states, blue states — a source of constant communication, a source of guidance and support, and above all, a source of accountability for all of us to get the job done," Biden said in announcing the appointment from the White House.
‘Shots in arms and money in pockets’: The Sperling appointment comes as the administration launches a multi-stop “Help Is Here” tour, with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses attending events across seven states this week to tout various elements of the new Covid rescue package — and with the administration reportedly mapping out a longer-term sales pitch as well.
Biden said that the country will reach “two giant goals” over the next 10 days: 100 million Covid vaccine shots in arms and 100 million relief payments delivered. “Shots in arms and money in pockets. That’s important,” Biden said. “The American Rescue Plan is already doing what it was designed to do: make a difference in people’s everyday lives.”
Why it matters: Biden is betting that, now that his American Rescue Plan has been signed into law and its $1,400 direct payments have started landing in people’s bank accounts, he can convince the public that government can be a force for good in their lives. To do that, his new law has to work — and, to maximize its political benefit to Democrats, it has to be seen as working.
"It's one thing to pass a historic piece of legislation like the American Rescue Plan, and it's quite another to implement it. And the devil is in the details. It requires fastidious oversight to make sure the relief arrives quickly, equitably and efficiently with no waste or fraud,” Biden said.
He later added: “We have to prove to the American people that their government can deliver for them and do it without waste or fraud.”
Biden used his speech Monday to slam the Trump administration’s implementation of the March 2020 Cares Act, saying that its attacks on accountability had resulted in the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses becoming a “a free-for-all for well-connected companies” that left behind businesses that needed help the most. “We will not let that happen this time, Biden said.
Sperling’s role, similar to cone that Biden himself had in overseeing the Obama administration’s $800 billion stimulus plan in 2009, could be crucial in determining both how well the massive Covid spending plan works and public perception of the law. “With a flood of nearly $2 trillion in government spending, problems and mistakes are always a possibility,” The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager says, “and Republicans will be on the lookout for examples of misspent funds.”
Implications for OMB: Sperling had been under consideration to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget after Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination for that post. But the idea of Sperling as budget chief “received major pushback from the Hill, according to multiple sources involved or aware of the discussions,” Politico’s Laura Barrón-López and Ben White write.
“Sperling found himself at odds with progressives in recent years for his role in negotiations on various deficit reduction efforts,” Barrón-López and White add. “But he has moved further left in recent years, advocating for massively expanded spending to fight Covid and assist an economy that remains around 11 million jobs short of the number that would have existed without the pandemic. When former Obama Treasury Secretary Larry Summers penned an op-ed questioning whether the latest stimulus was too large, Sperling was quick to respond that he believed it was not.”
Sperling’s appointment as American Rescue Plan czar leaves Shalanda Young, a longtime congressional budget aide and Biden’s current nominee for deputy budget director, as the most likely pick to head OMB. The White House has already said that, once confirmed as deputy director, Young would likely be made acting director of the budget office.