Surely The Clinton Campaign Is Joking About This 'Have Sheryl Sandberg Run The Treasury' Thing!

Lean away from this obsessive focus on the professional class, Hillary.
Sheryl Sandberg is one of the billionaires in the Clinton family orbit. 
Sheryl Sandberg is one of the billionaires in the Clinton family orbit. 

In case you missed the hot, speculative news about the 2016 presidential race, The Huffington Post’s Ben Walsh and Ryan Grim reported that sources close to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump are saying that he’d be inclined to appoint “eccentric” tech billionaire (and Trump endorser) Peter Thiel to the Supreme Court, where he’ll have a greater opportunity to ensure that America’s plutocrats are no longer bothered by nosy journalists or would-be trust-busters.

But Hillary Clinton, she is not to be outdone! See, the former secretary of state knows tech billionaires, too (and not just disgraced ones), so if you want to get into a famous-friend-turned-potential-appointee fight, Clinton is ready to bring it. Here’s the skinny from Politico’s Morning Money newsletter:

TREASURY WATCH: SANDBERG RISING — Early speculation held that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg probably wouldn’t leave California to return to DC to serve as Treasury Secretary in a Clinton administration. That’s changed lately as MM hears more and more that she could return to be the first woman to lead Treasury. The left may not love her roots in the Bob Rubin wing of the Democratic Party but her star power and historic potential would probably blow away any opposition.

Naturally, this is all mere scuttlebutt, though it is plausible scuttlebutt for a host of reasons. As noted above, Sandberg has “roots” in the Democratic Party, and yes, it’s from the part of the Democratic Party that everyone’s rightly skeptical about. Prior to her Facebook career, Sandberg was enmeshed with the folks who appeared on the Time magazine cover that has aged the poorest. Specifically, she served as chief of staff to Larry Summers during his tenure as secretary of the treasury, where he served under Bill Clinton. 

But it’s not merely her place in the Clinton family orbit that makes this rumor feel just right. Sandberg is almost the perfect embodiment of Clinton’s larger economic policy portfolio ― indeed, the economic policy portfolio of the Democrats writ large ― which was ably summed up by author Thomas Frank in a March interview with HuffPost: “At some point, [the Democrats] decided that they weren’t all that interested in the concerns of working people anymore.” Rather, Frank says, they became fixated on “the concerns of the professional class, people with advanced degrees, people at the very top of our economic society.”

On the stump, Clinton talks about the need to further diversify this professional class. Hey, let’s solve income inequality by ensuring that the corporate board of every military contractor in Washington’s suburban belt looks more like the United Colors of Benetton, guys! Installing Sandberg at the Treasury, and releasing all the “historic potential” that comes from being the first woman to head the agency, would be in keeping with that theme. That’s “Part One” of the plan, anyway. (”Part Three” is “everybody wins” and Part Two is a series of tastefully aligned question marks.)

Sandberg, of course, is best known for being the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, her insanely popular manifesto of next-wave feminist aspiration, which encourages women in the workforce (the “knowledge sector” workforce, anyway) to embolden themselves on the job and deconstruct all of the psychological barriers that these women have supposedly erected around themselves in order to surmount the more structural, sexist barriers erected by others (white men).

The book, naturally, spawned the Lean In Foundation, which bills itself as “a nonprofit organization and online community dedicated to helping all women achieve their ambitions.” But while there is no shortage of positive testimonials available at the foundation’s website ― including one from Reese Witherspoon, who’s well-known to have only won a single Academy Award (and a Golden Globe and a BAFTA and a Screen Actors Guild Award) before Lean In came along ― it’s hard to actually quantify how well the Lean In brand is helping individual women in the workforce.

However, it is easy to discern how well Lean In is serving its corporate sponsors. And it’s not exactly taking a courageous role in smashing the patriarchy.

In a 2013 issue of The Baffler, journalist and author Susan Faludi undertook a deep examination of Lean In’s corporate partners in order to settle an argument: “Sandberg’s admirers would say that Lean In is using free-market beliefs to advance the cause of women’s equality. Her detractors would say (and have) that her organization is using the desire for women’s equality to advance the cause of the free market.” 

Those detractors have a point! 

As Faludi skillfully enumerates, Lean In’s corporate partners are legion and include big names, such as: “Chevron, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Comcast, Bank of America and Citibank, Coca-Cola and Pepsico, AT&T and Verizon, Ford and GM, Pfizer and Merck & Co., Costco and Walmart, and, of course, Google and Facebook.”

As Faludi notes:

Never before have so many corporations joined a revolution. Virtually nothing is required of them — not even a financial contribution. “There are no costs associated with partnering with Lean In,” the organization’s manual assures. “We just ask that you publicly support our mission and actively promote our Community to your employees.” All the companies have to do is post their logo on Lean In’s “Platform Partners” page, along with a quote from one of their executives professing the company’s commitment to advancing women.

But as Faludi goes on to report, many of these corporations’ commitments to “advancing women” look very suspect when you start to examine their sundry legal altercations. Here’s just a taste from Faludi’s files:

Citibank: “In 2010, six current and former female employees sued Citibank’s parent company, Citigroup, for discriminating against women at all levels, paying them less, overlooking them for promotions, and firing them first in companywide layoffs.”

Booz Allen Hamilton: “In 2011, Molly Finn, a former partner at the firm who had been fired after serving as its highest-ranking female employee and a star performer, sued for sex discrimination. She charged the company with creating an unwelcome environment for women and intentionally barring them from top leadership posts. During a review for a promotion (which she was subsequently denied), she was told to stop saying ‘pro-woman, feminist things,’ she recalled.”

Wells Fargo: The bank reached a class-action settlement in a suit that “charged that the bank’s brokerage business, Wells Fargo Advisors (originally Wachovia Securities), discriminated against women in compensation and signing bonuses, denied them promotions, and cheated them out of account distributions, investment partnerships, and mentoring and marketing opportunities.”

Walmart: “In 2011, the world’s largest retailer famously managed to dodge one of the largest class-action sex-discrimination suits in U.S. history (involving 1.5 million women), after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on technical grounds that the case didn’t constitute a single class action.”

Faludi went on to seek comment from Sandberg about how Lean In squares its willingness to provide positive press to these corporations with the fact that, in many instances, they do not exactly deserve it ― as well as whether her current employer, Facebook, was taking to the Lean In revolution with any degree of zeal. For her troubles, Faludi was sent on a comical runaround that ended with some PR drone answering her questions by rejecting their premises. 

Suffice it to say that whatever benefits the Lean In revolution have provided for individual women in the workforce, it’s been a far greater boon to these corporate partners. For the low, low price of lip service to Lean In’s compilation of empowerment aphorisms, they might obtain the foundation’s imprimatur ― behind which they can hide a bevy of sins that a more rigorous band of feminists might confront more critically.

It’s the sort of brand-washing opportunity you can’t find many places. Though one place you can find it? The Clinton Foundation!

There’s little doubt that Clinton could benefit from Sandberg’s “star power” and her optimism. But this hot rumor is a trial balloon that floats many thousands of miles above the reality of our economy. It’s yet another pitch from the Clinton camp that’s aimed at an affluent and over-served segment of the population, squarely missing those who truly regard their future fortunes with a mix of anxiety and resignation.

Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t cater to the professional class at all. His pitch is squarely aimed at all the people Clinton talks over, above and around. He’s a class traitor, leading a band of white nationalists under a banner that promises to claw back the spoils of the country’s elites, and redistribute them to everyone who feels like they’ve lost out in the past half-century of progress.

Floating Sandberg as a possible Cabinet appointee comes at a curious time in the presidential race. As Clinton’s lead in the polls erodes, there seems to be a growing awareness that her campaign needs to retool its message to voters. What Sandberg’s name signals is that the next phase of the Clinton team’s public communications will be more optimistic and audacious. That’s not an entirely half-baked approach. This is a message that would draw contrast with Trump’s downcast view of the world and the gutter stylings he deploys to convey it.

The only hitch is that it’s hard to know for whom this message is intended. Surely not for the people in Ohio whose affections Clinton now desperately needs to win back. Right now, the race in that state ― and elsewhere ― seems to be trending in the other direction. 

Will further Lean In-esque paeans to the aspirations of well-heeled professionals draw these voters back to Clinton’s fold? I’m starting to wonder if the tightening race isn’t so much based on the recent media coverage of Clinton’s pneumonia as it is a product of the fact that her larger economic pitch has always tended to exclude the very people most in need of reassurances and a vision for the future. Trump may be a dangerous strongman, but he takes that strongman act right to that portion of the electorate who likely greet Clinton’s message ― and her obsession with the already affluent ― as tone-deaf.

There’s no doubt that Sandberg has proven that you can gather up a bunch of management bromides, package them as a prosperity gospel to the professional class and create a viral sensation. Clinton has, for a long while, spliced this sort of DNA into her economic pitch ― and it probably sounds great to both her donors and her base. But it’s an open question as to whether this reaches the voters she needs to persuade. 

In the end, I’m just not sure you can actually beat authoritarianism with a wall of Successories posters. But it’s starting to look like we’re going to find out.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.