President Barack Obama's schedule for the G-8 and G-20 meetings later this month is crammed with back-to-back sessions with fellow heads of state on an array of topics ranging from stimulus spending to trade imbalances to currency fluctuations. He will rely on one trusted aide to keep track of it all, Harvard University Law chum Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.
As Obama's "sherpa"—a familiar Washington term borrowed from the Himalayan mountain guides—Froman will be at the President's side as he tactfully prods French President Nicolas Sarkozy or German Chancellor Angela Merkel to strengthen their financial systems and increase their banks' capital levels, or as he tells global leaders not to count on U.S. consumers to lead the world recovery.
One of the biggest challenges at the June 25-26 meeting of the Group of Eight in the Ontario resort of Muskoka and the June 26-27 Group of 20 confab in Toronto, Froman says, will be to keep the summiteers focused on the agenda. "People will try and deflect attention to other issues," he says. "One of the roles of the sherpa is to bridge the gap between what the bureaucracy serves up and what leaders want to talk about."
Much of the tension in Toronto will focus on the response to the sovereign-debt crisis roiling Europe and threatening to infect global markets. The U.S. has been pushing European nations not to move too fast in trimming the stimulus-spending programs intended to fight the 2008 financial crisis. While France and Germany have announced fiscal tightening to shrink deficits, the U.S. is concerned that such measures could depress global demand. Froman, 47, a former Citigroup (C) executive and protégé of former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, says "there is broad consensus among the G-20 about the importance of fiscal consolidation." (Just 15 months ago, at the G-20 summit in London, the issue was just the opposite: how to persuade every country to spend more. Now the debate is about determining which countries can spend less.)
Ahead of any global summit, there's a sherpa circuit, with visits to the host country's natural and historic treasures. The idea is to build relationships by mixing work with play. Last February, for example, the G-8 sherpas went on a dog-sledding expedition in Yellowknife, Canada, where they discovered that 40 below is the same in Celsius as it is in Fahrenheit. Only the Russian delegate brought the proper hat.
Most of the heavy lifting in Toronto will have been done before the leaders arrive. "The leaders are not gathering for a drafting session," says Daniel M. Price, a lawyer at Sidley Austin and President George W. Bush's last sherpa. "The key benefit of these summits is the interactions among the leaders." Although the leaders appear to be alone, they really aren't. Sherpas listen in on their working dinners, huddled together just off the dining room, exchanging small talk and gathering intelligence.
This will be Froman's fourth summit as Obama's top sherpa. Since the first summit of Obama's Presidency, there's been another fundamental shift: The U.S. is no longer to blame for the world's economic ills. "The President goes to Toronto in a position of strength," says Froman. U.S. banks "went through transparent stress tests, raised new capital, and took steps to clean up their balance sheets," he says. The message: The ball is now in Europe's court.
The bottom line: This time, Obama will not attend the G-20 summit as the head of a country causing economic turmoil.