Is Larry Summers Leaving?

On March 26, Fox Business News's Charlie Gasparino reported that Larry Summers, the chairman of the National Economic Council, had begun talking to anonymous associates about retiring after the November election. Circuits pinged everywhere in Washington. Later that week, the big rumor was that Rahm Emanuel himself was making a secret list of people who might be potential replacements for Summers. Or that Rahm had begun to ask people for names of suggested replacements. Then came a report in National Journal about Summers's "ego massage," suggesting that the former Harvard president had been complaining about his status ever since President Obama decided to renew Ben Bernanke's Fed presidency for a second term and demanding frivolous perks. So is he leaving? Is he being pushed out?

What's the truth? It's not all that complicated, but it's not easy to convey in a way that makes a TV news producer very happy.

Point one: Summers, like every member of Obama's cabinet, serves at the pleasure of the president. Summers said as much this weekend, although he hastened to add that he was most happy with his current assignment. He has a busy job, even though most of the major economic projects are not subject to his direct oversight. The administration is creating economic policy, almost daily. There are jobs to be found. Summers rides herd over the administration's huge infrastructure renewal program. There's an enormous international component to his job that is rarely remarked upon; on everything related to China except for Iran sanctions, he's the lead, and he's in the Iran meetings, too. No one else in the administration is on a first name basis with as many Asian leaders.

But there's a two-year turnover for these types of jobs, Summers has a Harvard University professorship waiting for him, a family that did not move to D.C., and it would not be surprising, nor terribly controversial, if, in some precincts of his own mind, he had begun to think about his post-White House life. He has, in fact, had discussions about his future with some of his associates.

Nor is it really a news story that the chief of staff would be thinking the same thing -- not just for Summers, but for a host of senior officials, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and OMB director Peter Orszag. In eight months, some top Obama aides might be pushed out. Some of them might move to different jobs. Some of them might want to step down. Some of them might want to transition to the presidential re-election campaign. All of them will be forced to make some decision or another within the next seven or eight months.

It's important that the departures and transitions are handled in the most efficient, least disruptive way: if Summers openly contemplated stepping down, talking to friends and colleagues, he'd been "seen" as predicting his own departure, perhaps reducing his own standing inside the White House. (It's still high; he meets with the president nearly ever day and organizes the Economic Daily Briefing, giving him more face time than almost any White House official. Access to POTUS = standing. Also, Emanuel and Summers get along, despite what has been reported, chatting about a half dozen times a day on average.) If Summers on the other hand doesn't think about a road map for stepping down, he'll open himself up to political guff --- Obama's kicking him out before or after the midterms, a repudiation of Summers's advice, a rejection of his intelligence, etc.

It's a safe assumption that Summers, who essentially accepted a staff job -- the director of the NEC, in order to have a role in this White House -- would be pondering what happens next. It's also quite reasonable to believe that he is (a) grumpy, (b) satisfied, and (c) polarizing -- all at once.

As chief of staff, it's Emanuel's job to make sure that the president has options. It's Emanuel's job to digest what Summers tells him and then collect his own intelligence to decide whether Summers is being a good team player or whether he's unhappy or whether he's too busy to think about the future. It's Emanuel's job to think about who might replace Summers. Or who might replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Or who might replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. AND who might replace himself, since Emanuel is among those whose commitment to the president extends for years.

So -- is Summers leaving? No. Is he on the outs with the rest of the economic team? Not really. Are folks spreading rumors about him, hoping he will leave? Maybe. Will he depart before the midterms? Probably not. Will he be doing what he's doing now on April 5, 2011? Maybe not. Maybe, probably, if. Those qualifiers are anathema to the way this business works, but to the best of my knowledge and reporting, one cannot accurately describe the state of Summers's thinking without using them.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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