ABC News' Teddy Davis, James Gerber, and Gregory Wallace Report: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., underscored his affinity with Democratic centrists this week when he tapped Jason Furman, who worked closely with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, to be his director of economic policy.
But the selection is now drawing criticism from some on the left who are wondering if the presumptive Democratic nominee will challenge corporate power and make good on his promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
"When people see someone like Barack Obama promise change and then see that same person make their first move the hiring of a Wall Street economic team, that’s what sows disengagement and cynicism in the public,” said David Sirota, a one-time backer of former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is the author of “The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington."
Furman comes to the Obama campaign from the Brookings Institution where he headed the Hamilton Project, an economic policy research group which was founded by Rubin. Furman is the author of a Center for American Progress report which argues that some efforts to pressure Wal-Mart have ended up undermining low-income consumers. He also has backed a reduction in the corporate tax rate that would be financed by increasing the number of firms covered by the tax.
Before the presidential race got underway, Obama spoke at the Hamilton Project's 2006 launch and praised its leaders for taking on "entrenched interests" while serving in the Clinton administration and for being willing to "experiment with policies that weren’t necessarily partisan or ideological."
During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Furman was peppered with questions about Rubin’s influence by Tom Edsall, a long-time Washington Post writer who is now political editor at the liberal Huffington Post.
Stammering at first, Furman said his appointment was "no reflection at all" on Rubin's influence before suggesting that the advice of Rubin, who is now chairman of Citigroup’s executive committee, would be balanced by more labor-oriented economists.
"I think it is a reflection, no reflection at all on Senator -- I was hired, I think, because maybe I've done an effective job in previous campaigns, not because of any particular economic views that I have," said Furman who advised Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.
"Sen. Obama was very clear and very explicit with me, that what he wanted me to do was help bring a wide range of voices to him to advise him on economic policy," said Furman.
"Before taking this job,” he continued, “I spoke regularly to folks like Jared Bernstien (of the liberal Economic Policy Institute) and since taking it I'll speak to them even more often, and I'll certainly speak to Bob Rubin and (former Treasury Secretary) Larry Summers and James Galbraith, (a liberal University of Texas economist) "as well."
"So I think I personally have a pretty wide range of people that I like to talk to about the economy, and learn from, and that is certainly where Sen. Obama is," Furman continued. "And I don't think this has anything to do with, with my own personal views. They're not relevant for a staff person on the campaign."
Later in the call, Edsall asserted that Furman comes from a school of economics that is “more free-market oriented” than Obama’s tone during the run-up to the Ohio primary when the Illinois Democrat was outspoken about his pledge not only to aid workers displaced by trade but also to renegotiate the NAFTA agreement which is already on the books with Mexico and Canada.
"I don’t think that's an accurate characterization of my own thoughts," Furman told Edsall. "I also don't think it's that relevant for understanding what Sen. Obama wants to do for economic policy. But, why don't, can I call you right after this and we can talk about my own views on economic policy a little bit more, as irrelevant as they are."
With the hunger for a Democratic president running high after seven and a half years of President Bush, Obama has enjoyed substantial maneuverability on the left. But the ruckus from some liberals over Rubin’s influence is a reminder of the types of schisms Obama could face as president.
“I think he had a choice,” Sirota said of Obama’s Furman pick, “he could bring someone in with a worker’s perspective, or a Wall Street perspective, and he chose someone who, at least starts, in Wall Street’s camp, and I think that’s a troubling signal.”