By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010;
It was the final question from the audience following Larry Summers's final speech as President Obama's chief economic adviser. "What," asked Caren Bohan of Reuters, "will you miss most about being in the White House?"
Summers could have taken the chance to wax eloquent about the virtues of government service, but instead he glared at the questioner. "Reporters like you," he said. Awkward laughter followed. Bohan's eyes widened, and Summers chuckled at his little joke.
For a man delivering his valedictory, with TV cameras rolling, it was oddly petulant. Bohan had written a profile of Summers this year that emphasized his "rougher edges" and his role in making debates among Obama's economic advisers resemble a "World Wrestling Federation smackdown."
But the parting shot was vintage Summers: a man who rose to national prominence because of his intellect but is now leaving government known more for his dyspepsia. Over the past two years, there has been no shortage of things to put him in a sour mood.
On his last tour in government, he was the wunderkind who, at age 28, had become one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard's history. Before he turned 40, he joined the Clinton administration, where as economics adviser and Treasury secretary he presided over boom times - earning a stature that propelled him to the Harvard presidency.
But Summers peaked too soon. First came his conflicts with women on the Harvard faculty, leading to his unceremonious departure and his quip Monday that he "came to Washington to get out of politics." Then, returning to government, he was passed over for his old job at Treasury and for the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve. This time, the 56-year-old Summers will leave office with an unemployment rate near 10 percent, and Democrats and Republicans talking about the administration's "failed" economics team.
On Monday morning, he went to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, to give his "perspectives on the past two years." But in his remarks, he spoke of not a single wrong decision he made.
In the question time, the Huffington Post's Dan Froomkin prompted Summers to list some regrets. The economist would say only that "one would like to have seen more rapid progress," but that "relative to what was really very widely feared, the outcome has been a good deal better."
Summers's final performance was very much in character. He arrived 10 minutes late for the speech, his suit jacket open, his shirt pulling tightly at the buttons, his suitpants stained on one of the knees. His hair showed signs of bedhead, but it could have been mussed by Summers during one of his morning meetings. He jiggled his legs while listening to the introduction by EPI President Larry Mishel, who had some edgy words for his guest. Although both men grew up in Philly, Mishel said, "when he moved to Boston, he adopted the Boston Red Sox as his baseball team. Me? I'm still a fan of the Fightin' Phils."
Summers rushed to rebut this point - by insulting the home team. "If I lived in Washington, I might still be a Phillies fan, too." There were groans in the audience.
After that, the valedictory was appropriately scholarly. Summers spoke about "global fora" and "the canonical good" and "Moynihan's corollary to Baumol's disease." But more than brainy, he was bullish.
"Had it not been for President Obama's willingness to support a sufficiently aggressive response from the late stage of the presidential campaign to his first days and months in office, I have little doubt that we would be looking at a vastly different world today," he said.
He recalled his glory days during the Clinton years - "The United States improved its structural deficit by nearly four percentage points of GDP between 1993 and 2000" - and maintained that Obama "has already taken several important steps" to lessen the deficit. "I am not one who sees financial collapse on the imminent horizon," Summers said.
I asked Summers whether, in retrospect, there was anything he would have done differently. He rephrased the question. "Would I like the results to be even better than they have been on a number of different dimensions? Of course. But I think the president is right to take pride in what has been averted. And that is not easy always for people to understand, but is something that I think is very, very important."
Americans don't know how good they've got it - because they aren't as smart as Larry Summers.