With the grumbling against Summers growing, Obama on Wednesday mounted an extraordinary defense of his friend and old adviser in the halls of Congress. He told Democrats that Summers deserved credit for helping restore the economy and expressed frustration with the campaign against him. Many Democrats have endorsed Summers’s rival, Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen, to lead the central bank.
Obama “was defending Summers from attacks in the left and in the media that he felt were very unfair,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who was present. “This was defending someone he sees as his friend and a loyal public servant.”
Obama, Connolly said, “felt he needed to unload himself of growing frustration . . . with what he perceives to be an unfair character campaign to disparage and diminish Larry Summers.”
The president’s defense came amid letters from 20 Senate Democrats and 37 House Democrats urging him to nominate Yellen to replace Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. Over the years, Democrats have clashed with Summers, not just over what some officials have described as an abrasive style but also over issues such as his skepticism on aiding manufacturing companies, his unmitigated support of free trade and his past efforts to deregulate the financial industry.
The White House has said a nomination is not due until the fall, and Obama said on Wednesday he has not made a decision. He also appeared to throw a new name into the ring: former Fed vice chairman Donald Kohn, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
After the meetings with the president, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called Summers “a friend” and said Democrats would support whomever Obama chose.
The back-and-forth over Summers was striking because the Harvard professor would seem, on the surface, to stand to benefit from his role in shaping Obama’s economic policies — including the 2009 stimulus and the Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulation — that Democrats on Capitol Hill routinely celebrate. And as President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Summers was a steward of the 1990s economic boom that lifted median wages and the stock market.
“He was always a forceful advocate for reducing inequality and fighting off austerity and having aggressive growth strategies that were based in the middle class,” said Neera Tanden, a former White House official who is president of the Center for American Progress, where Summers is a fellow. “He’s basically in line with everything that progressives stand for.”
Yet in Congress, it appears that very few lawmakers have publicly endorsed Summers as a potential Fed chairman. Among the questions that have been raised about Summers is his management style, which critics say is overly brusque, as well as the personality clashes that occurred when he was director of Obama’s National Economic Council and president of Harvard.