It's the Treasury Secretary, Stupid

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First comes Secretary of State Colin Powell. Then comes National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice. And then George W. Bush makes the first Really Big call of his pre-presidency: The treasury secretary, stupid.

President Clinton leaves behind at least two legacies (besides his own disastrous transition in 1992) that Bush will be paying close attention to: Eight years of inflation-free economic expansion, and the emergence of the treasury secretary as the administration's liaison to Alan Greenspan.

Greenspan, of course, is the center of the economic solar system, and he's already locked in for another three years. His stewardship of the boom has so far been mostly unerring, and he may be gearing up to give Bush an early Christmas present by returning the Fed's bias on interest rates to neutral — or possibly even cutting rates — at the Dec. 19 FOMC meeting. Making sure the "soft landing" of this slowing economy doesn't tip over into something much bumpier is Greenspan's job but Bush's political responsibility. Bush Senior learned that the hard way.

Subbing for the "wealth effect"

Bush has one major economic priority: an across-the-board tax cut, which may be the only reward to the Republican right that Bush can afford this spring. A soft landing — or even something a little harder — can give Bush the economic context he needs to sell a fiscally responsible cut.

There's a good argument for it: Consumer spending is two thirds of the U.S. economy, and its lifebuoy during tough times. Bush can't do anything about the cranky stock markets that are erasing the "wealth effect" that keeps America shopping. But with the economy slowing and consumer confidence dropping, Bush can very sensibly offer to put some cash back in Americans' pockets.

Tax cuts have lost some of their political allure in the past eight years, and they weren't Greenspan's first choice for the surplus. And any shift from Clinton's economic policies will be met with some complaint. But if Bush can keep the Fed and Wall Street confident that he won't cut taxes at the expense of fiscal responsibility in Washington, he can make them happen. And his first step to doing that will be his choice for Treasury, whose job is to make Greenspan and Wall Street feel secure about Bush in a winter of uncertainty.

Bush's shortlist

Did somebody say Larry Summers? Keeping Bob Rubin's protégé on board would be the ultimate reassurance, but Summers hasn't been brilliant enough to overcome the fact that he's Al Gore's buddy. That might be too much uniting, even for Bush.

The current betting is on a Wall Street guy, Bush's version of Rubin. The short list: PaineWebber chief Donald Marron; John Hennessy, former chief executive of Credit Suisse First Boston; and Walter Shipley, former head of Chase Manhattan Corp. But Bush doesn't have any obvious connections on Wall Street, so he could go for Enron chief Kenneth Lay, a major contributor, or even New York Fed head William McDonough. Or pretty much anybody else.

Bush will likely get his first choice — Treasury is not the sort of position on which Democrats would want to blow their bipartisanship clogging up confirmation in the Senate. But whomever he picks will need to get along with Greenspan and be a source of reassurance on Bush's plans for the federal budget. He'll also be a vital first impression for an American people used to fat wallets and good economic times.

Trip up on this one, and that tax cut could be the issue that gives this "uniter, not a divider" a splitting headache.