First let’s accept the obvious. The US is going to pick the next president, and if you care about the World Bank that’s a good thing. If the world’s largest economy and reigning great power doesn’t get a special say in the governance of global institutions, those institutions rapidly lose relevance (see, eg, the UN General Assembly). The genius of the gentleman’s agreement is that it accedes to big power politics while still embedding them in a multilateral framework.
That said, the White House has apparently hit a roadblock. The rumor mill says they’ve already offered the job to the obvious suspects (including both Clintons) and all have declined it. That leaves B-list names like Summers and Rice, but both are reportedly proving tough sells, Summers is as unpopular overseas as he is at home, which doesn’t bode well for his candidacy. Rice is said to command only tepid respect even within her own department, which doesn’t speak well of her chances of running the notoriously complex Bank Group with its five arms, matrix structure, and 10,000-plus employees. Names of other dark horse candidates (Gore?) are making the rounds in the Beltway, but if any were clear winners the White House would likely have announced by now.
That leaves Michael Bloomberg. Although he recently denied interest in the job, his name has been popping up with greater frequency both inside and outside the Bank, and to favorable reception. Yes, he’s yet another white male, and at age 70 he’s a stretch candidate. But he has everything else in his favor:
– He’s been a star performer in the private, public, and philanthropic sectors including in investment banking. He understands all three worlds well and moves with ease among them. All three are key to the Bank, especially in the next decade.
– He practically invented the modern era of web-based knowledge management with his news service. The Bank realizes knowledge is central to its future but is still struggling to master the art of managing it. Its latest effort involves a multi-million dollar top-down “platform” of a central committee deciding what knowledge will be generated and how. Marching boldly into 1947!
– As mayor, he has “blended a progressive social agenda with fiscal pragmatism” in the words of the New York Times. That’s a fair synopsis of the balance the Bank aims to strike. For example, his administration has pioneered some of the most interesting innovations in education.
– As a political independent, he is beholden to neither major party in the US and has been admired by both.
– He has governed a large, unruly, international city effectively for a decade, including a municipal workforce of a quarter million people.
– He has global name recognition and a good global image. Some years ago his office even invited Mexican officials to teach New York about their workfare program. This kind of humility is both rare and welcome in high US officials.
– The upside of his age is that he will not be using the office as a stepping stone to something else. His pragmatism means he won’t use it as an anvil on which to hammer an ideological agenda.
Obama scores few political points for appointing him, and Bloomberg may well not want the job. If so it’s a pity, because he seems better suited to it than any of the other names in the wind.