HONOLULU - Among the first announcements President Obama will make upon returning from his Hawaiian vacation is his choice for top economic adviser, a decision that could signal a new direction for the administration as it struggles to jump-start the economy and wrestle down unemployment.

It's far more than a personnel move. The replacement for the departing director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Summers, will have a guiding hand in nearly every economic decision the Obama administration makes, and the president's choice is being closely watched for signs of where he wants to take his economic agenda in the second half of his term.

Will he tap the business world with a figure such as Roger Altman, an investment banker and Clinton administration alumnus who might carry too much baggage from his association with Wall Street?

Will he turn to academia, calling on a scholar such as Yale president Richard Levin?

Or will he go with deeply experienced insiders such as deficit hawk Gene Sperling at the Treasury Department or Jason Furman, the council's deputy director?

With the unemployment rate at 9.8 percent, the private sector struggling to maintain steady growth, and the public ranking the economy as its top concern, Obama's handling of the issue is certain to play a central role in his reelection bid.

The selection process has dragged on for months. Summers announced his resignation in September, and many in the administration knew well before then that he planned to return to Harvard University after serving two years at the White House.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said he expected the president to make an announcement in early January, and blamed any delay on the frenzied legislative session that consumed the White House through year's end.

The administration's thinking on how to fill the job has evolved. The initial view, inside and outside the White House, was that Obama should name a business leader to the post, to give the private sector a greater voice in the administration and ease the perception that the president is antibusiness.

But the administration now believes the relationship between Obama and the business community has started to thaw. For example, each side praised the other after Obama's meeting with CEOs earlier this month. The White House has grown more willing to find another prominent job for a private-sector appointee while leaving the council post to an economic heavyweight who can coordinate the advice Obama is receiving from throughout the administration.

"To get a business person in there, it seems like an odd place," said Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "And if he does need someone from business, I don't think he would want someone from Wall Street."

It's that Wall Street connection that's been a knock against one of the leading candidates for the job, Altman, founder of Evercore Partners. He does have government experience, though, having served as deputy treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Sperling, another top contender, has also dabbled in Wall Street, advising Goldman Sachs and other firms, though he's best known for his work in the Clinton and Obama administrations, including his current post as counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Sperling helped craft the 1993 Deficit Reduction Act, and his appointment could show Obama is serious about addressing the mounting debt and deficit next year.