Like many owners of a smartphone, when Professor Peter Swire awoke in the wee hours of the morning last winter, his message box was full of e-mails. But, unlike most people who awake to discount offers, blast e-mails and news alerts, Swire was reading confidential policy briefings and give-and-take comments from top experts on the housing crisis. ‘Tis the life of a special assistant to the president.
“The physical pace is noticeably different than 10 years ago,” Swire said. “The last time I worked for the president, on a normal day at 10 p.m., if someone wanted me they would have to page me or call. But, today, with smartphones, the work never stops. It is common to send a document out at 10 p.m. and have comments by 7 a.m. the next morning.”
Every morning, White House and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) briefing e-mails arrived by 6 a.m. and staffers were expected to report to the office bright and early, ready to discuss and offer insight and expertise.
“At every staff meeting, Larry Summers would go around the room, asking questions, sort of like a pop quiz, or law school,” Swire said.
Swire, the C. William O’Neill Professor in Law and Judicial Administration, returned to Moritz this fall after a leave of absence from the faculty that he spent working for the White House as a special assistant to the president for economic policy. Swire worked in the National Economic Council under Director Larry Summers and was the White House coordinator for the administration’s interagency housing policy.
“When the administration took office, housing prices had dropped for 30 straight months and a quarter of all mortgages were underwater,” Swire said. “The heart of the problem was subprime mortgages, especially so-called NINJA loans – no income, no job, or assets. Every part of the system failed and there were no checks and balances. Traditionally, lenders were very concerned about whether the applicants could make their payments because the debt was on their books, but during the bubble, banks were packaging and passing on mortgages like never before.”
Over the course of a normal week, Swire would work directly with the Treasury Department, HUD, Office of Management and Budget, the Domestic Policy Council, the Council of Economic Advisors, Office of Vice President, Department of Agriculture, and the Veteran’s Administration to create solutions.
Swire focused the majority of his efforts on reforming the Federal Housing Authority, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac as well as developing loan modification programs and other programs targeting foreclosures. In many ways, Swire said he was acting more as an economist than a lawyer.
“I argued more about numbers than the rhetorical nature of the words,” he said.
In part, Swire relied on the experience he gained while working on similar issues as an attorney during the savings and loan crisis in the 1990s.
“This crisis is much bigger than the savings and loan crisis,” he said. “In the savings and loan crisis, small and medium size institutions were in trouble and closing. In 2008, some of the biggest investment banks and lenders in the world were crashing, closing, or sold. Obviously, this is going to have huge systemic effects.”
Swire previously served in the White House as the chief counselor for privacy in the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton. Having worked directly with two presidents, Swire could not help but observe some differences.
“Both Clinton and Obama are incredibly smart. President Clinton is more gregarious, naturally charismatic, and just dominates a room when he walks in,” Swire said. “President Obama is very disciplined. He comes to meetings on time, absorbs the written material in a detailed way, and reaches decisions in the allocated time. He is calm and relaxed even when the situation is difficult. He listens very carefully, but does not show stress.”
Perhaps as a reflection of the leader’s style, the atmosphere among White House staff also changed.
“The economic situation was so difficult in 2009 that there was a very serious sense of purpose and focus,” Swire said.
During the period immediately following the election, Swire worked on a transition team focusing on Federal Trade Commission. He also helped the administration transition its very well-known and dynamic social and digital media structure to whitehouse.gov.
“The rapid response required by new media is a challenge when governing because many parts of government want to weigh in on what is said,” Swire said. “During the transition and the start of the administration, people were still being selected to positions, computers did not work or have the necessary software, and the Senate confirmation process was slow.”
Keeping true to his ability to wear many hats, Swire also assisted in the early days of the administration with issues relating to wireless broadband and technology. His efforts led to more than $7 billion being allocated toward increased wireless broadband access in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In total, Swire played a significant role in many of the administration’s most challenging issues.
“The president had to make some very tough choices,” Swire said. “If the only goal was to have the best midterm elections ever, then there would not have been a healthcare reform bill or a financial regulation bill, but instead we would have just done a jobs bill every six weeks. The president took this time to make some historic changes and he got some big legislation passed – and got hammered for it in the midterms.”
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