Labor union officials and some liberal activists were seething Tuesday over Barack Obama’s choice of centrist economist Jason Furman as the top economic advisor for the campaign. The critics say Furman, who was appointed to the post Monday, has overstated the potential benefits of globalization, Social Security private accounts and the low prices offered by Wal-Mart -- considered a corporate pariah by the labor movement.
Officials from several labor organizations phoned the Obama campaign to complain about the appointment and circulated e-mail messages containing quotes from some of Furman’s work. Campaign officials responded that some of the quotes were inaccurate or out of context. They expressed confidence in Furman’s abilities and said that Obama would be listening to an array of advisors.
The dispute is a fresh reminder that sharp divisions on economic policy remain in the Democratic Party, even though the bruising fight for its presidential nomination has ended. Those divisions are likely to present a recurring problem for Obama, especially as he tries to ward off GOP accusations that he is too liberal.
And Obama is not the first Democratic presidential candidate to confront the problem. Sen. John F. Kerry faced it in 2004. Going farther back, liberal activists resented former President Clinton’s support for free trade, deficit reduction and other centrist policies.
Furman, 37, is linked closely to Robert Rubin, a Wall Street insider and Clinton economics aide who eventually became Treasury secretary. Rubin’s views on global trade and deficit reduction riled liberal economists and labor activists, though his presence gave the Clinton administration valuable credibility in the business and financial communities.
“We are very much taken aback that Furman has been put at the head of this team,” said Marco Trbovich, a senior aide to United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard, whose support is considered crucial to Obama’s success in heavily unionized areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and other battleground states.
Trbovich worked with Furman during Kerry’s presidential campaign, in which Furman was also an economic advisor.
“He is a very bright fellow, but he is an unalloyed cheerleader for the trade policies that have been very destructive to manufacturing jobs in this country,” Trbovich said. “There are very serious concerns” about his appointment.
Perhaps the most enraging part of the record, according to Trbovich and others, were comments attributed to Furman on Wal-Mart.
In a paper presented in Washington, he suggested that there were some economic benefits from the company’s low prices and other policies at a time when major labor unions had launched an anti-Wal-Mart campaign.
Furman worked most recently as a budget expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington heading the Hamilton Project, an economic policy research group. It was founded by Rubin, who now chairs the executive committee of Citigroup Inc.
Lori Wallach, a lawyer and leading opponent of free-trade policies, said the appointment was jarring from a policy and a political perspective.
“Furman seems like a liability, given his anti-worker writings and statements about Wal-Mart, fair trade and other middle-class issues,” said Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s global trade watch division.
An e-mail circulated among activists, scholars and senior labor officials Tuesday included quotes that Furman had offered in academic papers and media interviews in recent years.
“I hope the lesson that Democratic candidates take from this is not to bash trade and call for protectionism, but instead to call for a robust safety net,” Furman told an NPR interviewer last year.
He was also quoted in a transcript from a CNBC interview in 2006 as suggesting openness to changes in Social Security that might include private accounts and benefit cuts.
The approach he described sounded similar in some ways to that proposed at the time by President Bush. The Bush private accounts idea was anathema to labor activists, who successfully challenged the president’s initiative.
In naming Furman as economic policy director, Obama also announced that other economists, including some from the left, would informally become part of the Obama economics team.
One economist from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, Jared Bernstein, offered praise for Furman, saying he understood why some critics were unhappy, though he thought their fears were misplaced.
“I understand the concerns, given positions he has taken” on some issues, Bernstein said. “But I am 110% certain that it will be Barack Obama -- not Jason Furman or Robert Rubin -- who will be setting the policies for the Obama administration.”
Although Furman has directed think-tank work on some controversial topics, Bernstein said he would be an effective campaign staff member. “If you look at his body of work, it’s quite clear that the ultimate goal is very much the same as Obama’s,” he said.