Larry Summers. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
On Sunday, Larry Summers sent President Obama a letter withdrawing his name from consideration to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, and progressives did rejoice. The news came after a protracted and heated debate, particularly for a role that doesn’t tend to get a lot of hearts racing, over who should take over when Ben Bernanke leaves in January. The contest was reportedly between Summers and Janet Yellen, who currently serves as vice-chair for the Fed.
The argument in Yellen’s favor was twofold. She would be the first woman to ever lead the central bank, breaking a glass ceiling in economics, a world with many such ceilings. President Obama has long voiced a commitment to diversity, and here was an opportunity to bring some to a place that hasn’t seen much in its leadership (even though nearly half of the Fed’s employees are women). But she is also an easy appointment: she is eminently qualified, with more than a decade of experience at the Fed, an impeccable track record on predictions, and a mind to continue the current policies that many economists say are helping the slow economic recovery along. Summers, on the other hand, is cozy with Wall Street, which could throw a wrench into meaningful financial reform as Dodd-Frank is rolled out, and doesn’t have a great track record on predictions, particularly about the crisis.
There’s also the problem that Summers got in hot water for implying that women are less inherently able to excel at science, making his appointment instead of a historic first female nominee even more of a slap in the face.
Yet President Obama apparently resisted calls for Yellen, backing his man Larry, until it became clear that the fight to confirm Summers would be one he would lose. In his letter, Summers explains that the confirmation would be “acrimonious.” This became clear when at least five Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee said they would vote against even bringing his nomination to the floor, a coalition of progressive groups spearheaded by the National Organization for Women and Ultraviolent pushed hard against Summers’s nomination, and more than 450 economists signed onto a letter to support Yellen’s candidacy. All this to get him to drop a less qualified man for a more qualified woman.