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Biden to pick economic team amid battle between centrists, progressives

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Joe Biden is expected to name Neera Tanden, who was an adviser to former President Barack Obama, as director of the White House budget office, and economist Cecilia Rouse as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers as soon as Monday, according to a person familiar with the process.

FILE PHOTO: Center for American Progress Action Fund president Neera Tanden speaks on the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Biden is also expected to pick Wally Adeyemo, senior international economic adviser in the Obama administration, to serve as Janet Yellen’s top deputy at the Treasury Department. Economists Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey are expected to be named as members of the Council of Economic Advisers, the person said.

Biden has also picked Brian Deese, another adviser under Obama, to head the White House National Economic Council, the New York Times reported, citing three people with knowledge of the matter.

Biden’s transition team declined to comment, while Tanden, Rouse, Adeyemo, Bernstein, Boushey and Deese could not be reached for comment.

Biden’s economic picks have been the subject of a tug-of-war between Democratic centrists, who mainly want a return to expertise and competence, and progressives, who want dramatic steps to fulfill a key Democratic campaign promise to make U.S. capitalism fairer for all. The nominations of Tanden, Rouse and Adeyemo require Senate confirmation.

Just like in 2009 with Obama, whom Biden served as vice president, the incoming administration will inherit on Jan. 20 a struggling economy facing serious near-term challenges.

But this time, the economic blow dealt by the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare dramatic wealth and racial disparities that progressives want Biden’s team to tackle swiftly. They have leaned hard on him to shun corporate lobbyists and prioritize diverse picks.

The economic selections so far represent “broad diversity, deep expertise, long Washington experience,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of centrist Democratic political consultancy Third Way, and “a return to competence and sanity.”

But some progressives criticized the selection of Deese, a White House climate official under Obama and currently an executive at BlackRock Inc, the world’s largest asset manager.

Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, a group that scrutinizes corporate influence in government, said BlackRock’s large stake in U.S. policy decisions might put pressure on Deese to recuse himself from some policy matters.

“He will either be absent from big chunks of his job or proceed without regard to the conflicts of interest,” Hauser said. BlackRock did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The appointment of Tanden, who heads the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank and sparred with the progressive camp over her support for Hillary Clinton against Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential race, is also likely to draw criticism from the left.

FOCUS ON INEQUALITY

Rouse, a labor economist at Princeton University whose research has focused on the economics of education and tackling wealth inequality, is well-liked by progressives. She previously served as a member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Rouse has criticized the Trump administration’s economic response to the pandemic, noting in an April Princeton University podcast that small-business aid had fallen short. She also spoke in favor of more direct aid to workers through their employers, and expressed concern about the impact the pandemic would have on worsening income disparity.

Adeyemo was a senior White House national security adviser for international economics during the Obama administration, as well as a top aide to former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. He is currently president of the Obama Foundation.

Bernstein served as Biden’s chief economic adviser as the Obama administration fought to pull the United States out of the Great Recession.

Boushey is known for research focusing on how inequality can hinder economic growth. The chief executive and co-founder of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a progressive economic think tank, Boushey has been working with the Biden team as an unofficial economic adviser.

Nearly 14 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits that expire on Dec. 26, and the coronavirus’ continued surge means there is no telling when they might be able to go back to work. Biden’s economic agenda is likely to focus on getting the country past the coronavirus crisis, both as a health and economic issue.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Valerie Volcovici, Andrea Shalal, Heather Timmons and Jonelle Marte; and Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Jason Lange; Writing by Michelle Price; Editing by Diane Craft and Peter Cooney

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