The Toughest Cabinet Job in Town

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When George W. Bush shook up his White House staff a few weeks ago, the smart money in town took a decidedly blase attitude about it. Wake me, said a longtime Republican player, when they dump [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [Treasury Secretary John] Snow. Until then, he added, it's not a policy change of much significance.

That take still looks smart. But if, as many expect, Snow is the first to go, and soon, it's worth spending a few moments to consider why this White House has such a hard time finding the kind of Treasury secretaries it, and the country, really needs.

Consider the lineup: Paul O'Neill, the onetime Alcoa boss, was brought in by Vice President Dick Cheney chiefly to make then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan happy. The three men had worked closely in the Ford White House, and Cheney thought he was bringing the band back together. But reunion tours don't work much better in government than they do in rock 'n' roll, and O'Neill, who had a flair for candor that matched Cheney's for secrecy, quit — or was fired, depending on whose account you believe — after two shaky years.

Next came Snow, the former CSX Corp. executive. His tenure has been in some ways just as anticlimactic as O'Neill's, while perhaps inspiring even less confidence. He had a tendency early on to say things that spooked the markets, leading some on Wall Street and on K Street to wonder whether he understood them. When the economy flagged a bit, Snow was a less than inspiring presence on TV. And by the time the first term ended, White House officials were leaking widely that he too would soon be going — so widely that Bush decided to do one of his famous LBJ-inspired personnel U-turns and keep Snow just to spite the critics.

But even Bush may be losing his patience. Which raises the question: If Snow goes, who gets to ride into the sunset as Bush's (presumably) last Treasury chief? The choice will tell us a couple of things:

First, does the new White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten, understand the job? In this day and age, Treasury secretaries really have only one job: to monitor, regulate and above all reassure financial markets. A Treasury boss should above all be a horse whisperer, someone who quietly speaks to key people around the world about changes in our own economy, alerts them to trends in fiscal policy, and takes in information from key players in the private sector for use by policy makers in Washington. In essence, he's sort of a double agent in the house of finance. Bolten should understand this, coming from Goldman Sachs. But that hardly means this view will prevail.

Which leads to the second mystery: Will the new guy have a significant say in economic policy? My guess is no. There may have been a time when Treasury secretaries set economic policy and government regulatory policy for business. But that era is largely past. Most of the economic policy decisions that matter are made in the White House. And this White House, like the two that preceded it, has long made it clear that Treasury will primarily execute what the West Wing decides. Someone like Robert Rubin, who became Treasury chief after running economic policy for Bill Clinton, could still hold sway over that process because he was smart, had already designed the game plan during his stint in the White House and had an unmatched track record on Wall Street. But this White House is a closed loop; if you aren't there, you don't matter very much.

So, who might fill the position? Robert Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state who has long dreamed of the Treasury job, is no longer thought likely to get it. Zoellick, a brilliant if sometimes brittle player who has about 20 IQ points on everyone else in Washington, may have assumed that he would get Treasury in exchange for backing up Condoleezza Rice at State for two years. But if there is no real chance to make economic policy in the Treasury slot, Zoellick probably doesn't belong there. A more likely candidate now is Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a 53-year-old Cuban-born former CEO of Kellogg. He has the great virtue of certain confirmation, and boasts the kind of Main Street business background that Bush seems to prefer. But a horse whisperer he is not.