As the first African-American to be appointed Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and a strong advocate of multilateralism, Adewale Adeyemo is expected to help the US overcome its worst economic crisis since the 1929 crash.
“Wally Adeyemo was one of the stars of the Obama Administration.” Jason Furman, who was the chief economic adviser to the President of the US, was full of praise for his former colleague. “He impressed everyone he met with his intelligence, great judgment and kindness,” said Furman, who is now a professor of economic policy at Harvard University.
At 39, Adewale Adeyemo – also known as “Wally” – already has extensive experience in the Democratic Party and in the management of the country’s economic affairs. But just a month ago, he was little known by the general public, both in the US and across Africa. Appointed Deputy Treasury Secretary by President-elect Joe Biden on 30 November, he has now been brought to the forefront making headlines from Washington to Abuja.
For good reason: never before has an African-American been appointed to such a high position within this sovereign state. Born in Nigeria – in Gbongan, Osun State, according to the Nigerian press – he was just a baby when his parents decided to emigrate to the US with their three children. “In search of the American dream”, as he likes to say.
“Merit and opportunity”
The move across the ocean became the first stage of a journey that would take him to the White House, of which many Nigerians are celebrating.
On Twitter, Akinwumi Adesina, the president of AfDB, says he is “extremely proud” of him, while author Japheth Omojuwa, who has a large following on social media, applauds an American-style trajectory “based on merit and opportunity”.
Congratulations @wallyadeyemo on your nomination as Deputy Secretary of Treasury of USA by President-elect @JoeBiden. As the first black, a Nigerian-born American, ever to occupy the position in US history, you have raised hope. I am extremely proud of you. pic.twitter.com/fzb85GHTrp
— Akinwumi A. Adesina (@akin_adesina) December 1, 2020
If the Senate confirms his appointment, as expected by Ross Baker, professor of American politics at Rutgers University, Adeyemo will support Janet Yellen, former president of the Federal Reserve, who has been appointed Secretary of the Treasury. A task that promises to be particularly difficult in these times of pandemic and political schism.
The economic crisis caused by restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which saw the US GDP fall by 31% in the second quarter, pushed the unemployment rate from 4.4% to 11.2% over the same period. Tackling this economic crisis, which has particularly affected small and medium-sized businesses, is number one on Biden’s agenda come January.
However, there is no shortage of thorny issues : trade relations with China, the sanctions imposed on Iran and the tax rate imposed on the wealthiest could soon be under review by the Biden administration, which has expressed deep disagreement with Trump’s approach on these subjects.
For his part, during an exchange organised by the CSIS think tank in July, Adeyemo cited three issues to be given priority: inequalities, the country’s competitiveness and future employment opportunities. He also stressed the importance of a collaborative management of the pandemic by the G20 states. An approach that goes against the unilateral approach – the famous “America First” – of the Trump administration.
Adeyemo places the origin of his support for multilateralism from very early on in his life. On 11 February 1990, his father, a school teacher, woke him up to see Nelson Mandela coming out of prison. “Although the images on my television were of a reality thousands of miles from my home, in California, I could feel the hope Mandela inspired not only in South Africans but also in my father.” he would say much later. “It continues to remind me that events far from home can make a meaningful difference in the lives of Americans.”
A meteoric rise
This was followed by a meteoric rise from student body president at the University of Berkeley in 2001 to the head of the cabinet of the Financial Consumer Protection Bureau (a new federal agency created as a result of the financial crisis) in 2010.
Adeyemo joined the Democratic Party at an early age. At 23, John Kerry’s presidential campaign charged him with inspiring African-American voters in California. He also participated in the presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Barack Obama, before being courted (unsuccessfully), according to a memo published by Wikileaks, by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
2015 marked an exceptional achievement : He was appointed advisor to the presidency on international economic issues. Furman recalls: “I worked with him on the US engagement through the G20, US economic policy with China, and a range of other international economic issues. President Obama would consistently turn to him for advice on all of those topics.”
The young counsellor’s office is located a few dozen metres from the Oval Office. Among his achievements: The negotiation of the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, a free trade treaty signed by Obama in 2016 but abandoned by Trump before it came into force. His closeness to the former president earned him the appointment last year as president of the Obama Foundation that supports charitable work in Africa and elsewhere.
His appointment is not unanimous
However, his appointment to the Treasury is not supported unanimously. Some accuse him of playing both sides when he became chief of staff to Larry Fink, the CEO of asset management giant BlackRock, in 2017.
A link that disturbs some Democrats all the more since Biden has appointed another BlackRock alumnus, Brian Deese, to head the National Economic Council. Larry Fink, coincidentally, supported Biden’s candidacy during a January 2019 meeting, revealed by The Atlantic.
While criticising BlackRock’s influence and the back-and-forth between public and private services, Jeff Hauser of the CEPR think tank puts Adeyemo’s move to Wall Street into perspective. “Adeyemo has, unusually, support from both President Obama’s disappointing bank-friendly Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and America’s most ferocious opponent of excessive bank power, [Senator] Elizabeth Warren,” he told us. A large discrepancy that he says can be explained by the “incredible competence” of the Nigerian-born 30-something.