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Obama taps White House veteran as top economic advisor

Jeffrey Zients
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President Barack Obama has chosen former acting budget chief Jeffrey Zients to replace Gene Sperling as his top economic advisor, marking a shakeup in his team while the White House struggles to gain traction for its economic agenda.

Sperling, a longtime economic advisor to Obama and to former President Bill Clinton, will stay to help with what are expected to be contentious talks with Congress about the budget and the debt ceiling. He steps down Jan. 1.

A familiar figure at the White House, Zients served two stints as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget but was passed over for the top job.

(Read more: Making the case for Janet Yellen)

"I am certain that in Jeff's hands we will continue to have strong leadership of our economic policy team, and his advice will be critical as we keep moving this country forward and building an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead," Obama said in a statement Friday.

The president has tried to boost his public emphasis on jobs and the economy this summer, with tours focused on housing policy and making higher education more affordable, but his message has largely been eclipsed by the attention given to a potential military strike against Syria.

(Watch: Sperling discusses Obama's budget)

Sperling, who worked on tax reform and job creation measures during his White House tenure, was "central to designing policies to help support the housing recovery and was a driving force behind our manufacturing agenda and our efforts to attract jobs and investment to the United States," Obama said.

"Gene's relentless work ethic, sharp intellect and ability to work across the ... aisle have been instrumental in our efforts to build a better bargain for the middle class and reduce the deficit while also protecting the most vulnerable," the president said.

Sperling worked at the Treasury Department in Obama's first term before replacing Lawrence Summers as director of the White House National Economic Council. The president's next major economic decision will be selecting a nominee to replace Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Summers is considered a top candidate.

(Read more: Fed pick still weeks away)

Sperling is one of a handful of advisors intimately involved in that selection process, and the White House says Obama has not made his decision. An announcement is expected soon.

Beside the top OMB job, Zients was considered for two Cabinet posts, secretary of commerce and U.S. trade representative, but they went to Penny Pritzker, a businesswoman from Chicago and top Obama fundraiser, and Mike Froman, a White House advisor on international economics, respectively.

—By Reuters.