Bruce Reed, Biden's New Chief of Staff, Is Another Centrist Choice

Deficit commission members, including executive director Bruce Reed in center, on Capitol Hill. Harry Hamburg / AP

When President Obama named Bill Daley his new chief of staff, there was muted grumbling on the left. Daley, a banker and commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, had publicly criticized the Democratic Party and Obama administration for governing too far from the left. But his appointment was not presented as an ideological repositioning so much as a pragmatic choice. At the time, many liberals—in the words of Robert Kuttner, the coeditor of The American Prospect and a fellow at Demos, a progressive think tank—saved their fire for bigger potential fights to come, especially potential cuts to Social Security benefits.

Now the administration is bringing in one of the architects of the proposal to cut Social Security  benefits and other domestic programs: Bruce Reed, who has been named chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. Reed recently served as executive director of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which Obama created to fashion a bipartisan compromise on long-term deficit reduction, and is also known as the Bowles-Simpson Commission, after its co-chairs. The commission report was criticized on the left for agreeing to what liberals considered arbitrary and unnecessary limits on domestic discretionary spending. "Reed is someone who has been very open for a long time in his desire to see Social Security and Medicare rolled back," says Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Putting Reed in charge of Biden's shop is especially troubling to some economic liberals because Biden is viewed as a relative populist among the administration's top players, and Jared Bernstein, the most left-leaning economic adviser in the White House, works for Biden. And while chief of staff to the vice president is far from the most influential policymaking role in the administration, Reed's selection, especially coming on the heels of Daley's, may be a signal that the White House is taking more a more conservative tack on economic policy. "By itself, his appointment is not a big deal, since this is not a top-level position," says Baker, "but in the context of the Bowles-Simpson Commission recommendations and other recent appointments, this is not good news from the standpoint of people who value these programs."

Another mark against Reed for the left: he is the CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC, long an object of scorn for the Democratic Party's left wing, is a centrist think tank that was associated with the Clinton-era party's "New Democrat" reinvention. Reed served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. Colleagues of Reed's say that he will be loyal to whatever political direction Obama sets. "Bruce is a very smart man with his own policy views, but he’s also a team player as I think he demonstrated during the Clinton administration," says Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, who worked with Reed at the DLC.

Reed also has a long history of working in Democratic politics, so his allies contend he will be able to get along with more progressive Democrats. (Reed's predecessor in charge of the DLC, its founder Al From, was known for eagerly engaging in intraparty conflict against the left.) "He’s very devoted to the Democratic Party and progressive policy," says Kilgore. "He’s been associated with many different kinds of Democratic politicians. Way back in the day he was with Al Gore, he was very close in John Edwards in 2004, and he advised Kerry in 2004 also. It’s not easy to stereotype ideologically his career." Though it is widely known that Reed is close with Rahm Emanuel, Obama's decidedly centrist outgoing chief of ftaff, Kilgore adds that Reed's best friend in the early days of the Clinton White House was Gene Sperling, an Obama economic adviser who is seen as more liberal.

Some progressives, though, may doubt Reed's partisan Democrat credentials as well. Baker recalls that at an event in December at the Brookings Institution, Reed said the Bowles-Simpson Commission saw its role as paving the path for a divided government. At the time the commission was formed in 2010, Republicans had not yet won the midterm elections and Democrats held both houses of Congress. "Clearly he is not a highly partisan Democrat, which some people might think is good and some might think is bad," says Baker.

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