By JOSH BOAK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — On a cold, gray February afternoon, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stepped out of the West Wing wrapped in a puffy black parka and clutching a folder of documents, seemingly oblivious to the Washington custom of having an aide schlep the paperwork.
Viewed as an outsider to partisan politics, she now has a place in President Joe Biden’s inner sanctum, a Ph.D. economist who does the reading, knows the numbers and treats her staff as peers rather than underlings.
Yellen had been at the White House to strategize about how to push through President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan — a package that could determine how quickly the U.S. economy heals, how the Democrats fare in the midterm elections and just how much Americans can trust the government to solve the nation’s toughest problems.
The House passed the package Saturday, sending it to the Senate.
As a former chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen carries the authority of a public servant who has already helped steer the economy back to health once and now has been called back at age 74 for an encore after former President Donald Trump declined to offer her another term as Fed chair.
She is framing the need for the giant COVID-19 bill in starkly human terms, and her credentials are enough to give pause to Republican lawmakers and other economists who argue the package is so big it would overwhelm the economy.
“Yellen is uniquely poised,” said Brian Deese, director of Biden’s National Economic Council. “She has as much experience and expertise of addressing the challenges of our time as any living economic policymaker today.”
Even in a Washington riven by partisanship, Yellen is held in high regard by members of both parties. As president of the San Francisco Fed, she sounded the alarm about the housing bubble before it fully burst in 2008. She helped nurse the economy back to health as the Fed’s vice chair and then as chair sustained the longest expansion in U.S. history.
Yellen’s hard-won credibility is now staked on administering a dose of financial adrenaline and mass vaccinations that can bring back the 9.9 million jobs lost to the pandemic within the next two years, an unprecedented burst of hiring.
Biden’s proposed stimulus package is broad, with its $1,400 checks to eligible Americans and nearly $500 billion for schools and state and local governments. But Yellen believes that more narrowly targeted measures on unemployment benefits or food aid might miss deserving people like the mother who was forced to leave her job because the pandemic closed schools and childcare centers.
“The truth is there are pockets of pain that go beyond what can be reached in those highly targeted ways,” she said at a recent New York Times conference.
The Biden campaign first contacted Yellen about ideas for financial relief in May, back when she believed her career in public service was over.
After the Fed, Yellen joined the…