By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008
Lawrence H. Summers, tapped as the director of the National Economic Council in the incoming Obama administration, has long regretted that his tenure as Treasury secretary was cut short by Al Gore's defeat in 2000, less than 1 1/2 years after he succeeded Robert E. Rubin.
But Summers, an eight-year veteran of the Clinton administration, will not get his old job back. Instead he will get the position that Bill Clinton created for Rubin, a White House--based coordinator for economic policy. Rubin won plaudits for his self-effacing approach to the job, but few would describe Summers as self-effacing.
He is brilliant but also blunt and self-assured, the son of two economists and nephew of two Nobel laureates in economics and became one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard University's history. He has a penchant for controversy, nearly not landing a job in the Clinton administration because of a memo he signed at the World Bank suggesting that developed countries should export pollution to developing countries.
As a Clinton administration official, he annoyed Japanese officials with his prescriptions about how they should fix their then-ailing economy.
But under tutoring from Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive who was his mentor, Summers succeeded in smoothing some of his rough edges.
Summers also got along well with another Rubin protégé, Timothy F. Geithner, now chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Geithner, who Obama is expected to nominate as Treasury secretary today, played an important moderating role when Rubin ran the department and Summers was the deputy Treasury secretary, running interference between the more cautious Rubin and the assertive Summers.
Once he ascended to the top Treasury post, Summers was a strong defender of the Clinton administration, arguing that the 1990s economic boom was a direct result of the administration's decisions to focus on deficit reduction, including raising taxes on wealthier Americans in 1993.
"It is very well to say this is a credit to the American people and the entrepreneurship of American business and all that, and that is certainly a basic truth," he said in an interview shortly before he left office. "But the American people were pretty smart in 1991. So you ask yourself: What switched, what changed between the late 1980s and the early 1990s and mid-1990s, and it is hard to find anything else that changed as dramatically as public policy."
After Gore was defeated, Rubin helped Summers land the post as president of Harvard. But once again his eager bluntness got him into trouble. He alienated faculty and students, giving him few supporters when his words in 2005 about the relative strength of men and women in math and sciences ignited a nationwide controversy. He resigned as Harvard's president in 2006.
But since then, Summers, now a Harvard professor, has become an important adviser to Obama. His new role will put him in the center of economic decision-making -- but possibly without the public role that has gotten him in trouble before.