Larry Summers vs everybody else

By Felix Salmon
June 8, 2009

Jackie Calmes got some pretty great access for her 1900-word article on how the Obama economic team works — which, as the Economist notes, “might more aptly be called ‘Larry Summers Disagrees With Everyone’”. (Welcome back to Free Exchange, Ryan, even if that wasn’t you.)

A lot of the article, predictably enough, centers on Larry Summers, the man with or against whom all economic policy seems to be made:

“I am completely comfortable pushing back at him,” Mr. Geithner said in an interview.

“Larry will come to any issue and say, well, here’s all the 16 reasons why there’s problems with that proposal. If he’s got ideas, particularly if I think they won’t work, I say to him, ‘Well, why don’t you make the case against it, Larry, because you’re pretty good at making the case against anything.’ ”

The problem is that Summers doesn’t just push back at ideas in meetings, he also tries to prevent those ideas from even being heard in the first place: Peter Orszag, Tim Geithner, and Austan Goolsbee are all named as people that Larry tried to prevent from having access to the president at various times. (And we all know that Paul Volcker has been successfully marginalized by Summers.)

The upshot of all this fractiousness seems to be that the real decision-making power has ended up in some unlikely hands:

“You can’t assemble a group of really brilliant people, and deal with some of the most complex problems in our lifetimes and not have disagreements,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior political strategist who, with the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, plays a big role in mediating among the economic advisers and helps shape the decisions.

I’ve been fantasizing for a while about what would have happened if Obama had nominated Rahm to be Treasury secretary. Maybe he did, and just never told anybody!

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