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Originally published March 19, 2009 at 4:26 PM | Page modified March 20, 2009 at 9:06 AM

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On the Economy

Defining success for Gary Locke as commerce secretary

Gary Locke must navigate a different world as Obama's Commerce secretary.

Special to The Seattle Times

I didn't live here when Gary Locke was Washington's governor, but most people tell me he did a pretty good job. He was pragmatic and popular, centrist and incrementally progressive in the President Clinton mold, without Clintonian baggage.

If he's confirmed by the full Senate to be President Obama's commerce secretary, his success will be determined by three major questions.

First, can he make the Commerce Department relevant again? Despite the department's bewildering array of responsibilities from the census to conversion to HDTV, it has often been a listless sinecure for a president's political buddies. Think Donald Evans during the administration of George W. Bush or the late Ron Brown under Clinton. It's hard to believe that Commerce was a presidential launchpad for Herbert Hoover, when he was the nation's most revered public figure and a man of progressive, innovative accomplishments before the Great Depression overwhelmed him.

Obviously, the political brawl over the census will require finesse. But a bigger opportunity will be the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which accounts for more than half of Commerce's budget. NOAA has a critical role to play in helping us to understand the speed and severity of climate change, which will bring substantial economic cost and dislocation.

Second, can he get a seat at the table, as Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback put it, with the administration's economic heavyweights — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, head of the White House National Economic Council, and, hovering in the background, former Treasury Secretary and Wall Street operator Robert Rubin?

Locke can bring the perspective of a governor, a Westerner and a negotiator with long experience in dealing with America's most important — and problematic — economic partner, China. But this will matter only to the extent that he can get the president's attention along with the Big Three.

Third: How much is Locke prepared for the discontinuity that is our future? Geithner, Summers and Rubin are very much men of the '80s and '90s: deregulation, expansion of the financial sector and trade liberalization. Unfortunately, these policies also brought bubbles, deindustrialization and millions of economic losers. (And those three had plenty of help from a Republican Congress and then-Sen. Phil Gramm).

Behind the AIG scandal is this 1990s mindset that it will all blow over if we can find another innovative way to create another bubble. That world is over. The future will be dominated with rebuilding a colossal amount of lost wealth, re-creating an economy that makes productive things and is sustainable, and dealing with the coming shocks of climate change and expensive energy. It means trying to come out of the worst economic shock since the Great Depression.

The trading system that culminated with China's entry into the World Trade Organization is now the old order, too. That doesn't mean it goes away. But the U.S.-China stuff-for-debt relationship is unsustainability personified. So, too, are trade rules that have arguably helped average Americans' incomes to stagnate for eight years.

Will Locke be a good salesman for Boeing, Microsoft and his other Northwest supporters, as well as for American goods in general? No doubt. But the stakes are much higher now. Being a good salesman won't be enough.

You may reach Jon Talton at

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Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest

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