The centrist, pro-business orientation of White House economic policy should remain intact with the nomination of Robert E. Rubin, director of the National Economic Council, to succeed Lloyd Bentsen as secretary of the Treasury.
Since the outset of the Clinton administration, these two have been a tight twosome in resisting far-out liberal proposals of the president's so-called political advisers. If they faltered on one major occasion, it was because they could not prevail against Hillary Rodham's Clinton's insistence on health care reforms that even she now admits smacked too much of "big government."
Mr. Bentsen and Mr. Rubin deserve considerable credit for a recovery prolonged by their success in pushing a major deficit reduction through Congress in 1993 and by their consistent support of inflation-fighting interest-rate boosts by the Federal Reserve. They also were in the forefront of President Clinton's two major achievements: the North American Free Trade Agreement and a vastly expanded General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. These pacts will energize the U.S. and world economies well into the next century.
Despite official Washington's respect for Mr. Rubin, 56, a self-effacing Wall Streeter who coordinated economic policy in a White House otherwise characterized by chaos, Mr. Bentsen's decision to go home to Texas is a major political loss for the administration. A former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee wise to the ways of Capitol Hill and the Washington Establishment, the 73-year-old Bentsen's skills would have been useful in dealing with a Republican-controlled Congress.
Mr. Rubin, in contrast, will be thrust into a limelight he long has scorned. By reason of his high Cabinet post, he automatically becomes the administration's chief economic spokesman and its top salesman for proposals on taxes, welfare and other issues soon to be highlighted in Mr. Clinton's next budget and his State of the Union address.
Though Mr. Rubin is a consummate seeker of consensus who should have no trouble winning confirmation, he will find himself in the middle of brutal legislative battles with an aggressive GOP. He also will have to contend with a Democratic minority that is more liberal than the country and, probably, the president. It is then that he will have to prove he can be a fighter as well as a conciliator -- a politician as well as a financier.
It is well that Mr. Clinton has chosen a man of integrity and principle, one who could come out of a lucrative Wall Street background with deep personal concern for the underclass and an appreciation that this recovery has bypassed millions of workers who have experienced minimal income growth. If Mr. Bentsen has to go -- and he will be missed -- Mr. Rubin is a fine replacement.