The problem with Larry Summers
You're seeing some White House pushback on the idea that Christina Romer is leaving because she's tired of fighting with Larry Summers. And fair enough: People do tire of serving in the pressure cooker that is the White House, Romer and Summers were often on the same side of debates, and the press's tendency to emphasize internecine conflict as the motivation for staff resignations certainly distorts the coverage of these things.
But the speculation and blind quotes aren't coming out of the blue. Complaining about Larry Summers is a fairly popular pastime for White House staff, though the complaints are a bit subtler than people might imagine. They don't want Summers gone. They don't think his advice is bad, or his heart is in the wrong place. They don't even want him to stop dominating the meetings. They just don't think he's well-suited to running the meetings.
The critique of Summers is very consistent, and it's really not about him or his vaunted arrogance. It's his position. Summers runs the National Economic Council, which is the body charged with coordinating the president's economic process. But Summers, for all his brilliance and charm, is not the guy you want running meetings and smoothing disagreements and making people feel included. Summers doesn't facilitate debates. He wins them. He wants to be the guy Obama listens to, not the guy who listens to everyone else, and to a large degree, he is.
Over time, this has led to problems in the White House's economic process: People get left out, the lines of authority aren't always clear, and the guy who's supposed to be worrying about all that stuff is instead trying to get the president over to his side of the argument. This has made the White House economic process an unpleasant place to be, particularly if you're not one of the few who have a truly direct connection to the president. And that unpleasantness is part of the problem here: People don't stay in jobs they don't like.
Is that why some of the big names have left early? It's impossible to say. It really does seem that Peter Orszag wanted to go get married. I have no reason to doubt Romer's homesickness. But it's made for a worse policy process and has made it easier for some staff members to contemplate pursuing other opportunities, particularly now that the economic emergency is over.
The pity is that all this was predictable. There's a report, which I unfortunately can't find right now but I'm hoping one of my commenters will link to, in which these concerns were brought to Obama during the transition. Obama said that he didn't need Summers to run the process. Obama could run the process. But that, of course, couldn't happen. Obama is president. He's busy. He doesn't know what everyone thinks and feels, and staffers try not to bother the President of the United States of America because they feel insufficiently attended to. So this problem has gotten worse, and you can see it in stories like the ones surrounding Romer's departure. When the opportunity arises for staffers to complain about life in the economic policy process, they complain about Summers.
Photo credit: By Pete Souza/White House
August 6, 2010; 4:39 PM ET
Categories: Obama administration
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