If Ben Bernanke were running TV ads, taking polls and holding town hall-style meetings, it wouldn’t be any clearer that he’s conducting an explicit reelection campaign for another four-year term as Federal Reserve chairman come next January. Oh, wait a second, he just did hold an unprecedented town hall meeting. And it was one worthy of a presidential candidate charming primary voters in Iowa.
At the Kansas City Fed last night, Bernanke answered a couple dozen questions from 190 area residents for a three-part public television broadcast. Like a veteran politico, he tossed out the occasional platitude (“The best way to have a strong dollar is to have a strong economy”), railed against Washington (“I don’t think the American people want Congress running monetary policy”), gave a riveting and heroic personal narrative (“I was not going to be the Federal Reserve Chairman who presided over the second Great Depression”), and got downright folksy when talking about too-big-too-fail (“When the elephant falls down, all the grass gets crushed as well”).
Message to America: Ben Bernanke, a pharmacist’s son from Dillon, South Carolina, feels your pain. Now it’s not as if previous Fed chairmen haven’t campaigned for another four-year hitch. But the usual modus operandi is to curry favor with the Electorate of One — the president — who will be doing the renominating. And the precise mechanism has been a growth-friendly monetary policy.
Of course, the Fed has already been, to use Bernanke’s town hall phrase, “putting the pedal to the metal” to bolster the fragile economy and financial system. And that’s sure been to Wall Street’s liking. A Reuters poll last month found that economists rated Bernanke at eight out of 10 for his handling of the financial crisis.
But Bernanke’s smart to try and also get Main Street on his side. Obama, for instance, might prefer a more dovish Fed chair, such as San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen, who’ll worry more about unemployment than inflation as the 2010 and 2012 elections near. Bernanke’s pushback against Obama’s proposals for a consumer financial protection agency is also another sign of his independence.
Plus, the president could desire to make more diversity history by nominating the first woman Fed chair — while leaving it to aides to rip Bernanke in background briefs to reporters. (“He was part of the Fed team that left rates too low for too long and failed to regulate Wall Street.” “Remember, he called the mortgage crisis a $100 billion problem.” “Bernanke was way too slow to ease in 2007.”) What’s more, Bernanke has to worry about a Congress where populists in both parties have been critical of his role in providing bailouts to Wall Street banks and AIG, as well as Bank of America’s takeover of Merrill Lynch.
So if Bernanke wants to keep his job, the PR campaign should continue. More TV interviews like the one he did on 60 Minutes in March. Maybe a televised town hall meeting in each Fed district. How about a Chairman’s Blog? And if we start heading into November and Obama still hasn’t renominated him? Two words: Oprah Winfrey.