One angle in my recent profile of Tim Geithner concerned his relationship with Larry Summers, his former mentor and the director of the National Economic Council. I contend that Geithner, not Summers, has emerged as Obama's key adviser on financial matters, and that Summers isn't happy about it. (Not everybody was convinced.) Since my piece appeared, the buzz that Summers is looking to leave--or is being pushed out--has picked up. Earlier today, my colleague Marc Ambinder wrote about this, defending Summers against his critics while leaving open the possibility that he may, indeed, leave. My own view is a bit less sanguine. I think Summers is going to leave sooner rather than later, possibly before the mid-term elections, and if not then, soon afterward.
Why? Because Summers is frustrated by his role, and his colleagues are clearly frustrated with him. Alexis Simendinger had a devastating item in last week's National Journal suggesting that Summers's "legendary self-regard" and "ego the size of the national debt" had gotten out of control. Some of Summers's frustration no doubt stems from his wanting to be Treasury secretary. When that plum went to Geithner, Summers cast his eye on the Fed chairmanship and agreed to bide his time until Ben Bernanke's term ended at the NEC--a staff position well below his old job as Clinton's Treasury secretary. Most administration officials tactfully avoid pointing this out, because Summers has a fragile ego. But that's why Joe Biden is so great. "How many former Secretaries of the Treasury would come in not as Secretary of the Treasury?" Biden blurted out to the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza last fall.
But Summers didn't get the Fed job either. Apparently that didn't sit well. Administration insiders told Simendinger that Summers demanded a series of perks as compensation, including cabinet status, golf dates with the president, and a personal car and driver. In the "No Drama" Obama administration, such behavior stands out. And it isn't the first time Summers has been the target of leaks. Last June, only a few months into the administration, Jackie Calmes of the New York Times ran a Summers-focused piece on "tensions" in the economic team. A little later, Al Hunt wrote a column suggesting Obama was frustrated with Summers's poor coordination of the economic team. I heard the same thing from several sources, one of whom groused about the time spent "cleaning up Larry's messes."
Summers always seemed a bad fit for NEC director because the job entails dispassionately presenting the president with the counsel of his competing economic advisers. Summers doesn't do "dispassionate" and he didn't want to limit himself to fielding others' advice--he had plenty of his own to offer. In other words, he was supposed to be the referee, but he also wanted to play power forward. This rankled other members of the economic team, including Austan Goolsbee, Christina Romer, and Peter Orszag, enough that they're widely presumed to be the sources of many of the leaks. Summers's tendency toward bureaucratic infighting was another problem. As Jonathan Alter lays out in his forthcoming book, "The Promise," Summers maneuvered to sideline people like Paul Volcker, Joe Stiglitz, and even Orszag, behavior more characteristic of the Clinton administration than the Obama administration. Alter also reveals that Obama's nickname for Summers is "Dr. Kevorkian," which does not imply paternal fondness.