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Bush turns to financier Paulson to replace Snow

 

Reuters | May 30, 2006
By Glenn Somerville and Caren Bohan

President George W. Bush on Tuesday named Henry "Hank" Paulson as his new Treasury Secretary, enlisting one of Wall Street's most powerful players to help him claim credit for the economy's strength and lift his sagging popularity.

The surprise announcement that the Goldman Sachs chairman would succeed John Snow at Treasury came after weeks of speculation that Bush was about to make a change and won strong initial approval from lawmakers who must approve Paulson.

The 60-year-old Paulson is a nature enthusiast and former official in the Nixon administration, and heavy contributor to Republican candidates. He is poised to take the reins of an economy that grew at its fastest rate in 2-1/2 years during the first quarter but is showing some signs of slowing.

Bush has been frustrated that the robust economic performance has been overshadowed by problems in Iraq which have caused his approval rating to slump toward 30 percent. Republicans worry Bush's woes may leave them vulnerable in the November congressional elections.

At a White House Rose Garden ceremony announcing Snow's departure and Paulson's nomination, Bush praised the Wall Street executive's ability to explain complicated economic concepts in clear language.

Snow will represent the Bush administration at an upcoming meeting June 9-10 of Group of Seven finance ministers in St. Petersburg, Russia, likely his final official duty.

Among other responsibilities, Paulson will be the point person defending Bush's tax cuts, which the president insists have boosted growth but that Democrats blame for a surge in government budget deficits.

"He will work closely with the Congress to restrain the spending appetite of the federal government and keep us on track to meet our goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009," Bush said.

Paulson must also contend with the perception in global financial markets that the United States is content to see the dollar gradually fall in value as one means to help correct huge U.S. trade imbalances. That aspect was highlighted by currency strategist Ashraf Laidi of MG Financial of New York.

"Considering Paulson's Wall Street experience and credibility, we regard his appointment more of a defensive measure to prevent the dollar's downtrend from accelerating into an uncontrollable pace," Laidi said.

Referring to a U.S. push to try to get China to revalue its currency and open its markets, Bush said Paulson will "help ensure that our trading partners play by the rules, respect international property rights and maintain flexible market based exchange rates for their currencies."

The White House was actively courting a Wall Street heavy hitter to replace Snow, an industrialist seen by some Republicans as falling short as an economic messenger. Snow had indicated openly that, after 3-1/4 years, he wanted to go.

The shake-up at Treasury was the latest in a series of staff changes Bush has undertaken to try to shore up his popularity, starting with the decision in March to move Josh Bolten, the former budget director, to the job of chief of staff.

Bolten, a former executive at Goldman Sachs, was said to have been a key player in luring Paulson to the White House.

As Goldman's top executive, Paulson raked in more than $38 million in overall compensation last year.

In the wake of guilty verdicts in the Enron Corp. scandal, Bush praised Paulson for showing leadership on the effort to clean up corporate governance.

Paulson, in a 2002 speech in Washington, said that much of the new scrutiny on corporations after Enron and other scandals was deserved and urged changes to restore investor confidence.

Goldman, however, has had its own legal problems.

In 2003, the company agreed to pay more than $9 million to settle civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission in an insider trading case involving one of the company's former economists.

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