As deputy assistant to President and deputy director of the National Economic Council, David Kamin had a leading role in the Biden Administration’s response to the economic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts. Kamin served on the Biden-Harris transition team and worked in the White House from January 2021 to May 2022, helping to shape policy related to infrastructure, energy, tax, and budget.
Kamin was no stranger to the White House: under President Obama, he was special assistant to the president for economic policy as well as special assistant, and later advisor, to the director of the US Office of Management and Budget. He also served on the Obama-Biden transition team.
Kamin’s scholarship focuses on tax and budget policy, including taxation of the highest earners, corporate taxation, income support, retirement policy, and budget metrics. In this Q&A, he discusses his work in the White House and how it has informed his teaching.
Tell us about your role on the Biden transition team and as deputy director of the National Economic Council.
I started working on the transition team in June 2020, and so responding to the pandemic and its economic effects was our central focus. That was the case as the President took office. We had to balance working on immediate response to the urgent needs of the day, while also making sure that there was an economic vision for the medium and long-term.
The National Economic Council in the White House is fundamentally staff to the president, and we worked both at running processes and keeping up with senior decision makers in the White House. The day-to-day was a mix of working towards executing President Biden’s vision for strengthening the economy over the medium and long-term, and also responding to the immediate economic crisis that he faced coming into office as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was working on the infrastructure bill that ended up getting enacted and the reconciliation bill, which had many different formulations, but ended up becoming law. When it came to responding to the immediate economic crisis that the country was facing as a result of COVID, much of my work centered on the American Rescue Plan and the immediate support for the economy and investment in public health.
Day in and day out, in addition to research, factsheets, and meetings, other challenges arose which were not foreseen on the day that Biden took office. Those challenges ranged from the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and all of the economic effects that followed.
What were your primary goals as deputy director of the National Economic Council?
I've had the opportunity to work twice in the White House. These positions are huge honors, and also come with high stakes for the country and the President that you’re working for. Given the nature of the National Economic Council, my goal was to run processes which effectively identify issues that senior decision makers in the White House need to focus on. You need to know when you have to move as quickly as possible—when you need to cut through some of the deliberation that you would engage in if you had more time. And you need to be able to differentiate when you have that time, and when you don’t.
Of course, part of the goal is to make a difference—to make a more effective and fair tax code, and to have an economy which is growing strong and creating jobs. I have been lucky to work for presidents and senior decision makers with whom I have been generally aligned on the substance of issues.
Working in these positions was very different than working in academia, partly because these positions involve working on a team. One central goal of mine was to try, as much as possible, to have fun. It is important to keep in mind how weighty the issues that you are working on are. To have a team that was so diverse, worked well together, and tried to maintain a good sense of humor and have fun is important—and I believe ultimately brings about better results in the pressure cooker that is the White House.
How has your work in the White House informed your teaching?
I really try to infuse my classes with some kind of real-world experience that I’ve had and seen while working in government, and those experiences vary based on the subject of the class. Some of my students will end up working in government, and some others will end up practicing before government agencies. And I hope that in teaching classes this way—infusing my experiences in government and dealing with government lawyers, government policymakers, and people on the outside trying to influence the government—can help students be better at pursuing policy and making change in the world. Ultimately, I hope it makes them better practicing lawyers.
Any advice for law students interested in government service?
Yes. First, I want to say that there are great, rewarding careers which involve getting to work on issues that you care about, that you are interested in, and where you are relied on for substance. Whether it be as a lawyer—one specifically lawyering the issues—or as a policy official, there are many opportunities to pursue and make real, positive change. There are various career paths in government service, many without as linear a career path as in, for example, private practice. That can make a career in government service challenging.
I think part of what we at NYU are trying to do is to help reveal what those paths are. I often recommend that students do the Legislative and Regulatory Process Clinic in DC, headed by Professors Bob Bauer and Sally Katzen. The DC clinic helps students see both what it is like to work in government, and also the path to doing so. Pursuing government careers often requires affirmative decision making, and work to uncover career paths and then go down them. It can also be quite exciting to see how one path leads to another for those working in government.
What are you looking forward to next in your career?
I am looking forward to continuing to be able to work on issues central to the national economic debate, particularly through the Tax Law Center at NYU, which I helped found right before I left to work at the White House. Now, I’m coming back to the Tax Law Center—where the mission is to have tax lawyers working in the public interest, serving as a counterweight and counterpoint to the many attorneys in private practice who are often representing clients and putting in comments on regulations and litigating.
Coming back to NYU, it is very rewarding to be able to now help manage the Tax Law Center as its faculty co-director. I think this will be a really exciting new mission.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted March 28, 2023