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Obama picks former acting budget chief Zients as economic adviser

U.S. President Barack Obama talks about the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget while next to acting Director of Office of Management and Budget Jeffrey
U.S. President Barack Obama talks about the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget while next to acting Director of Office of Management and Budget Jeffrey

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has chosen former acting budget chief Jeffrey Zients to replace Gene Sperling as his top economic adviser, marking a shakeup in his advisory team while the White House struggles to gain traction for its economic agenda.

Sperling, a longtime economic adviser to Obama and to former President Bill Clinton, will stay through the fall to help with what are expected to be contentious talks with Congress about the budget and the U.S. debt ceiling. Sperling steps down on January 1.

Zients, a familiar figure at the White House, served two stints as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, but was passed over for the top job.

"I am certain that in Jeff's hands we will continue to have strong leadership of our economic policy team and his advice will be critical as we keep moving this country forward and building an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead," Obama said in a statement on Friday.

The president has tried to boost his public emphasis on jobs and the economy with tours this summer focused on housing policy and making higher education more affordable, but his message has been eclipsed largely by the attention in Washington on potential U.S. military strikes against Syria.

Sperling, who worked on tax reform and job creation measures during his White House tenure, was "was central to designing policies to help support the housing recovery and was a driving force behind our manufacturing agenda and our efforts to attract jobs and investment to the United States," Obama said.

"Gene's relentless work ethic, sharp intellect and ability to work across the (political) aisle have been instrumental in our efforts to build a better bargain for the middle class and reduce the deficit while also protecting the most vulnerable," the president said.

Sperling worked at the Treasury Department in Obama's first term before replacing Lawrence Summers as director of the White House National Economic Council.

The president's next major economic decision will be the selection of a nominee to replace Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Summers is considered a top candidate.

Sperling is one of a handful of advisers who is intimately involved in that selection process, and the White House says Obama has not made his decision. An announcement is expected soon.

Beside the top OMB job, Zients was also considered for two Cabinet posts, secretary of commerce and U.S. trade representative, but those jobs went to Penny Pritzker, a businesswoman from Chicago and top Obama fundraiser, and Mike Froman, a White House adviser on international economics, respectively.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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