Obama Picks Zients as Director of Economic Council

Jeffrey Zients, former acting chief of the White House budget office, was named by President Barack Obama as director of his National Economic Council, the panel charged with coordinating policy.

Zients, who has held positions in the Obama administration since 2009, will replace Gene Sperling, who plans to step down from his post in January, according to a statement from Obama.

Zients, 46, best known for his organization and planning skills, has served twice as acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. The NEC position doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

“Jeff has a sterling reputation as a business leader, and he earned the admiration and respect of everyone he worked with during his four years in leadership positions at the Office of Management and Budget,” Obama said in the statement.

Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, described Zients as “organizationally savvy and better than most at moving things along, which isn’t easy in that setting,”

Zients’ most recent appointment was in January 2012 as acting budget director, where he served until Sylvia Burwell was nominated to the post earlier this year. Zients has also been the agency’s deputy director as well as its chief performance officer.

Zients, an entrepreneur who founded two business consultancies, was on Fortune magazine’s 2004 list of the “40 Richest Under 40.” His net worth in 2011 was as much as $210 million, according to his federal financial disclosure statement.

Inner Circle

The departure of Sperling, who has played a role in developing tax, trade and economic policies in the administration, creates a vacancy in the White House inner circle. The 54-year-old Michigan native became NEC director in January 2011, working on a job-creation package in 2011, tax cuts for the middle class, and the tax increases on wealthier Americans that Obama won from Congress early this year.

Obama called him “one of my closest advisers and a close friend.”

Sperling told Obama last December he wanted to leave for personal reasons, with his wife working in Los Angeles. He promised to stay through the first year of the second term to continue the administration’s efforts to strike a budget deal, according to officials.

The New York Times, which first reported the shift in positions, said Sperling’s family recently moved to Los Angeles, where his wife, Allison Abner, is a scriptwriter and producer and is helping develop a new show for Fox television.

Budget Role

A negotiator during the 2011 budget talks, Sperling is playing a role in current fiscal discussions to avert a government shutdown by preparing various policy options at the White House.

Besides acting budget director, Zients is best known for his role as chief performance officer of the agency, and later, as deputy director for management. Both posts gave him license to lead administration efforts to tighten government programs, eliminate waste and abolish outdated or irrelevant programs.

Zients now moves into a position to make sure Obama’s economic agenda is followed within the administration and is pressed in Congress, in areas including agriculture, commerce, energy, financial markets, fiscal policy and health care.

“He has been an enormously valuable player on the president’s economic team,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing on March 19, when the administration announced Zients would be staying on as acting budget director and that the position of U.S. Trade Representative would go to another White House aide, Michael Froman.

After Burwell took over as budget chief, Zients left the administration, where he has been managing partner of Portfolio Logic Management LLC, a Washington-based investment firm specializing in investments in pediatric health care services and business services companies, according to its website.

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