Biden’s economic point man draws praise — and pushback

Few doubt Deese’s intelligence, and his close relationship with Biden is a potent source of his authority on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But while supporters have praised his efforts to win support for a $1.9 trillion relief package, Deese also has drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, some of whom have bristled at how much power he’s been given and how he’s wielding it.

Senate Republicans have groused privately that Deese, who declined to be interviewed for this story, does not appear interested in compromising on a final coronavirus relief package. One Republican senator said that Deese, who has been meeting with members of both parties in group settings and one-on-one, appeared to brush off concerns on a range of economic issues, including stimulus checks.

“He is doing his job, but he hasn’t been easy to work with so far,” said the senator, who asked for anonymity to discuss the complaints candidly. “Either he’s not been instructed to be bipartisan or he doesn’t have much interest.”

At a recent GOP lunch, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she did not think that Deese was committed to working with Senate Republicans, but that Biden was, according to a source familiar with the matter. Collins, like other GOP senators, has a long-standing relationship with the president from his time in the Senate.

Deese, despite gaining national prominence as the 31-year-old “wunderkind” leading Obama’s auto bailout, is a stranger to many Republicans on the Hill. Some GOP lawmakers have said they’d like to see other Biden administration officials get involved in the coronavirus relief talks, as well. Several noted that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin worked productively with Democrats to craft Congress’ previous coronavirus relief packages and said they’d be open to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen playing a similar role.

“I think she would be helpful,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “She’s well-respected up here obviously for her past experience. I think she would be a spokesperson that would have some gravitas.”

Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair who earned her economics Ph.D. in 1971, has been making more media appearances and holding high-level meetings since being confirmed in late January, a White House spokesperson noted. Deese, whose position is not Senate-confirmed, did not have to wait for congressional confirmation to dive into negotiations.

The White House disputes the notion that there is any daylight between Deese and Biden when it comes to working with Republicans. In a statement to POLITICO, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “The president made a commitment to govern through unity and to find common ground as our nation comes together to heal and build back better from the crises facing us, and his entire team is committed to that vision and working tirelessly to enact it.”

Deese’s admirers say he’s exceedingly bright and capable, a quick study who can easily digest complicated policy minutiae without losing sight of the politics surrounding them. A low-drama policy wonk, his only outward signs of stress, they say, include twirling his pen around his fingers during meetings or pacing around White House hallways and offices while on phone calls — often, at least during the Obama years, shoeless.

But his rapid career rise and his background — he has a law degree from Yale but no formal economics training — has also sparked frustration. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other Black Democrats cited his resume in November to argue that the White House was using different criteria when vetting a white man versus a woman of color, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

The news of Deese’s appointment came out around the same time that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) was told she would not be Biden’s pick for Agriculture secretary, a nomination for which she and her supporters had openly lobbied.