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Sperling, Obama's quirky and loquacious economic aide, makes exit

Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling speaks to the press in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washingto
Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling speaks to the press in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washingto

By Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It seems fitting that Gene Sperling, a White House economic aide with a taste for the theatrical, is heading to Hollywood when he ends his latest West Wing tenure this week.

Sperling is exiting stage left to cap a combined 12 years as an economic adviser to Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, a remarkable show of stamina given the punishing hours and sharp elbows in Washington.

He is not ruling out a possible return, but the current episode of Sperling's life finds him reuniting with his family in Los Angeles, where wife Allison Abner is a TV writer.

Every White House has a version of Sperling, the savvy adviser who delights in talking about the intricacies of economic policy and who can, for example, speak in long stretches without interruption about such things as how to rebuild manufacturing in America's Rust Belt.

But what distinguishes Sperling from others is his occasional flamboyance, like the time he stepped off a New Zealand bridge and plunged 150 feet toward a river, saved from oblivion only by bungee cords on his legs.

This from a man scared of heights. It was during Clinton's 1999 trip to Queenstown, New Zealand, and he says he would have backed away except he did not want to chicken out in front of the watching White House press corps.

His initial thought when the bungee cords caught him? "I'M

GOING TO LIVE!"

"That was my one daredevil moment," Sperling said with a chuckle during an hour-long exit interview in his West Wing office. "It gave me a very confident, flamboyant image ... that wasn't at all reflective of my actual character personality."

Sperling played a key role in many of the major economic policies of the past 20 years, such as Clinton's 1993 plan to jump-start the economy in the aftermath of recession and subsequent expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and student loan programs.

His entry into Clinton's world in 1992 is worthy of a segment on the old "West Wing" television show, for which he once consulted. He had been working for New York Governor Mario Cuomo. But when Cuomo decided not to run for president, he hoped the Clinton campaign would come a-calling.

A QUICK NEGOTIATION

When Clinton aide George Stephanopoulous called to offer him the job of Clinton's economic policy director, Sperling's inclination was to ask about salary and whether he would be included in the daily strategy meetings.

"And there's this long pause and George says, 'Gene, I just asked you if you want to be the national economic policy director for the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. You and I both know you would come take this job for free.'"

"And so that was the end of the negotiation," said Sperling.

Sperling's reputation for being able to explain arcane economic subjects in an accessible way has made him a popular briefer for reporters over the years.

This is why eyebrows were lifted all over Washington a year ago when famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward accused Sperling of threatening him in an email when he said Woodward would regret some of his reporting on a budget deal with congressional Republicans.

Even Obama was amused at the notion that the bespectacled Sperling would threaten anybody.

"Who knew Gene could be so intimidating?" he said at the Gridiron Club journalists' dinner last year. "Or let me phrase it differently, 'Who knew anybody named Gene could be so intimidating?'"

Sperling is part of a powerful group of advisers who carved out names for themselves in the Clinton administration and have had major roles under Obama, such as Obama adviser John Podesta or former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Sperling, 55, said his first six months in the Obama administration in 2009, as a counselor to Geithner shortly after Obama took office, were the hardest of his time in government because the economy was plunging with no end in sight.

Back then during yet another crisis meeting in the Oval Office, Obama asked him, "Gene, is it always like this?"

Sperling has most recently been helping Obama launch a series of manufacturing institutes in selected cities to draw public and private investment in creating jobs for the middle class.

He's found Washington to be a place where people of all political stripes gather to pursue deeply held views motivated by their ideals for the country.

"The thing that the president says and that is repeated often is that this is a small part of your life where you have an unprecedented ability to do good for millions of people and that's what makes this most special. And I think that's what drives most of us to want to be here, that's what makes it so painful to leave," he said.

With Sperling's departure, speculation turns on what he might do next. Loyal to the Clintons, his name immediately emerges as a potential economic adviser to Hillary Clinton should she decide to run for president in 2016.

His successor as director of the White House National Economic Council is Jeffrey Zients.

As for his future, Sperling says he doesn't have exact plans as yet but expects still to spend some time on public policy.

"Whether that's helping on an Obama priority from the outside or working on causes I like or candidates I believe in, my hope is that I'll be able to arrange my life so I'll have a chunk of time where I'll contribute," he said.

Having commuted cross-country on weekends to be with his family briefly, Sperling said he's ready to end what he calls "bi-coastalism."

"I, having had to deal with closing the deficit in two different administrations, I now want to close the structural deficit in my marriage," he said with a wry smile.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Caren Bohan and Cynthia Osterman)

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