Term Sheet

The latest on private equity, M&A, deals and movements — from Wall Street to Silicon Valley

Here's how Obama will defend Summers as Fed pick

September 6, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

He's the potential Federal Reserve nominee that liberals love to hate. So how will President Obama handle the onslaught if he chooses Larry Summers to run the Fed?

By Nina Easton, senior editor

Larry Summers

Larry Summers

FORTUNE -- Call him the Freddy Krueger of potential presidential nominees. Liberals, feminists, and plain-old targets of his withering dismissiveness may have thought they destroyed Larry Summers' shot at the Federal Reserve chairmanship. But he's back -- haunting their dreams of seeing stately womanhood at the helm of the nation's money supply.

White House leakers tell the Washington Post that Summers is still in the running to succeed outgoing Ben Bernanke -- and, by some accounts, even topping the President's list. A Summers nomination would shock and defy vocal critics who form the core of Obama's liberal base and have been pushing Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen. And it's not just liberal activists: Yellen easily trounced Summers in a Reuters poll of economists asking who should be the next Fed chair.

The Post and others say Summers remains in the mix largely because of President Obama's close relationship with, and regard for, the economic adviser who guided a new and uncertain administration through the early dark days of a massive recession. Summers is a believer in big, bold government action in the face of hard times. "Could the stimulus be too big?" he once said to me. "That's like asking me if I could lose too much weight."

Obama also owes Summers critical political points. As National Economic Council director, Summers vigorously backed bailing out the auto industry. It was a decision that, in his own words on election day last year, led to a "very different economy in Ohio and a very different economy in Michigan" -- and a losing battle in both states, he noted, for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

MORE: Jack Lew: The known unknown at the Treasury

If Summers does win the nomination, watch for the White House to counter a powerful storm of criticism with these talking points:

-- Critics say his support for deregulation in the 1990s  -- blocking proposals to regulate derivatives and favoring the elimination of Glass-Steagall -- contributed to the financial crisis. But Summers was long a vocal critic of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, arguably far more important contributors to the collapse. As Summers said at a Harvard Kennedy School panel that I moderated earlier this year: "When I hear people talk about public-private partnerships, I reach for my wallet. No one used the term more than Fannie Mae, unless it was Freddie Mac. Massive collaboration, massive disaster."

(Conservative critics could ask where Summers' suspicions of public-private partnership were hiding when solar company Solyndra was blowing through half a billion dollars of taxpayer money.)

-- Much speculation has, rightly, centered on what a Summers chairmanship would mean for monetary policy. But a key part of the Fed chair's job is an ability to foresee crises on the horizon -- something all top regulators dropped the ball on pre-2008. So watch for the White House to position Summers as a (rare) seer of dangers to come. In 2006, he worried about the level of risk-taking with these words: "The main thing we have to fear is lack of fear itself."

And in November of 2007, four months before the collapse of Bear Stearns, he called on policy makers to "wake up to the dangers of a deepening crisis." He added: "Three months ago it was reasonable to expect that the subprime credit crisis would be a financially significant event but not one that would threaten the overall pattern of economic growth ... Without stronger policy responses than have been observed to date ... there is the risk that the adverse impacts will be felt for the rest of this decade and beyond."

MORE: Are we ready for the next meltdown?

-- To concerns that Summers is too pro-business, expect the President to talk about their shared concerns over a widening income gap and decreasing social mobility for average Americans. Our "level of inequality and social mobility has deteriorated," Summers told the same Harvard audience earlier this year, calling it "stunning" that the ability of both a rich child and a poor child to go to a good college is smaller than it was 30 years ago.

-- Feminists not only support an historical appointment of Yellen as the first female Fed chief, but also view Summers as sexist, based on his controversial women-in-science remarks as Harvard President and his clashes with fellow Obama economic adviser Christina Romer (In the Post story, Romer questions Summers' management skills). To counter that perception, the White House will likely call upon Facebook (FB) Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who counts Summers as a mentor in a career that put her at his side at the World Bank and the Treasury Department. (Another powerful woman Summers supported in her career: Facebook Global Public Policy vice president Marne Levine). Sandberg, author of the post-feminist best-seller Lean In, has already publicly defended Summers on this score.

If the President Obama does tap Summers, the White House will have to mount a defense that gets him to 60 votes in the Senate -- and for that, he's still likely to need support from Republicans.

Join the Conversation
About This Author
Nina Easton
Nina Easton
Fortune

An award-winning author, columnist, and TV commentator, Nina Easton offers insights at the intersection of economics and politics. For six years she has been a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday and Special Report, and has appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, and PBS's Washington Week in Review and Charlie Rose. Easton is the author of the critically acclaimed Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy. Prior to joining Fortune, she won a number of national awards as a Los Angeles Times writer, and later served as the Boston Globe's deputy bureau chief in Washington. She is a native Californian and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.