Who is John Koskinen?

Posted: Aug 01, 2013 8:00 PM

If you're wondering who in the world John Koskinen is, you're not alone.  Much of official Washington, tax experts and outside groups were scratching their heads, too.  

For the record, Koskinen is President Obama's pick to head up the embattled IRS.  He's not known for being a tax guy -- he's being marketed as a "turnaround expert."  Along with heading up the US Soccer Foundation and working at a turnaround company for two decades, he was an interim CEO of post-receivership Freddie Mac, where he was also non-executive chairman from 2008 (after the meltdown) until 2011. 

His other claim to fame is having served from 1994-97 as Deputy Director for Management at the White House Office of Management and Budget. There, all of Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiatives crossed his office.  He also apparently chaired a set of inter-agency councils, and was charged with coordinating "government  management efforts," which included two government shut-downs.  

So -- to move directly to the question many in DC are asking tonight -- why pick Koskinen, out of the many, many distinguished Americans who might more readily come to mind?  I have a theory.

John Koskinen can be marketed as a "turnaround" expert -- thus can Obama continue to try to hold off any meaningful reforms at the IRS.  There is probably nothing objectionable enough in Koskinen's background to prevent his confirmation.  But he is not a tax expert, he has had relatively few dealings with the agency, and he has no idea where any of the bodies at the IRS are buried, as it were.  What's more, he has not had the kind of top-tier DC career that would have given him good contacts in the press or any loyal deputies in the government.

Therefore, more than most, he truly does serve at the "pleasure" of the President -- which is just what the President wants. I suspect he will be surrounded by plenty of Obama loyalists in ancillary roles who can help "manage" him (it will be interesting to see whether Danny Werfel stays on, won't it?), and Koskinen will have brought few deputies who are primarily devoted to him and his interests (imagine Hillary Clinton going to the State Department without the protection of having any of her own "people").  

Koskinen lacks standing in Washington dinner party society, and he unknown both to the public and the press.  That fact means he would be completely unable to "fight back" effectively if the Obama administration decided it needed to cripple his work by destroying his reputation.  

And since Koskinen has been around DC long enough to know how the game is played, all that is pretty good insurance that he knows there will be a high personal price to pay for doing anything -- whether in restructuring the agency or airing dirty scandal laundry --  that takes on the administration.

Looking at it that way, he's kind of a smart pick from the perspective of the administration's political interests.  And it's long been obvious that politics is the Obama White House's biggest, if not only, priority. 

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