How Obama's Pick for Fed Chair Became Obama's Sexism Test

The "race" for the next Federal Reserve chair has, in a way, turned into a test of the White House's openness to women.

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The "race" for the next Federal Reserve chair has, in a way, turned into a test of the White House's openness to women. It's the second time that's happened this year. Though Obama won the women's vote, and Democrats campaigned against a Republican "war on women," by January the president was facing criticism his cabinet was getting too white and too male. A widely-circulated photo showed the Oval Office packed with 10 male advisers, with only the leg of a single female aide visible. For the last few weeks, the same kind of controversy has been brewing over who will be the next Fed chair.

Among people who talk about these things, the field's been narrowed down to two candidates: former Treasury Secretary and National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers and current Fed vice chairwoman Janet Yellen. Yellen would be the first woman to lead the Fed, if President Obama decides to pick her. A lot of people think he should.

The case for Yellen: Economists, according to two new polls, think she's the best choice for the job. A comprehensive Wall Street Journal study showed that of 14 Fed policy makers, Yellen made the most accurate financial predictions between 2009 and 2012. The case against Yellen: an assortment of sexist cliches. Summers wouldn't be a bad choice, necessarily. But the fact that he's gotten in trouble for sexist comments in the past doesn't help.

Bloomberg and Reuters polled economists and found that they think that Yellen is both the most likely and the best choice to lead the central bank. Bloomberg found that 53 percent of the economists polled think Yellen makes the best candidate, and 65 percent think she is the most likely choice. Only 10 percent thought Summers would make the best candidate. Similarly, Reuters found that 26 out of 39 economists polled thought Yellen is the most likely choice.

But since Fed chair discussions began, certain Washingtonians, according to Ezra Klein's report for The Washington Post, have questioned Yellen's "toughness" and "gravitas." Gravitas, according to Salon's Joan Walsh, is just a "well-known Beltway code word for 'penis.'" Others, as New York's Jonathan Chait pointed out in July, think Yellen is only a contender because liberals like that she's a woman:

Yellen, the [Wall Street] Journal concedes, "doesn't lack for professional credentials. But her cause has been taken up by the liberal diversity police as a gender issue because she'd be the first female Fed chairman."

That is a pretty remarkable passage, especially the "but." The "gender police" would argue that they support Yellen because she is so highly credentialed, not despite her qualifications. 

An editorial in the conservative New York Sun worried in July, "Are we entering the era of the gender-backed dollar?" We're not quite sure what that meant, but it wasn't flattering to Yellen or women in general.

Obama hasn't said anything about these gender-based attacks. That would be fine, if it weren't for the fact that he made sure to defend Summers from preemptive attacks at his press conference last Friday. "I think the perception that Mr. Summers might have an inside track simply had to do with a bunch of attacks that I was hearing on Mr. Summers preemptively, which is sort of a standard Washington exercise, that I don't like." Obama added that he would "defend folks who I think have done a good job and don't deserve attacks." As Walsh points out, that line was was only talking about Summers. (Previously when he did mentioned Yellen, he called her "Mr. Yellen," which was noticed by, well, everyone). There have also been reports that Obama has been privately defending Summers to Democrats in Congress since July. It is, Walsh writes, Obama's right to nominate whomever he wishes. "But his high-profile defense of his controversial former staffer (while ignoring the slurs against Yellen) and his very public brush-back to Yellen’s congressional advocates hasn’t made his or Summers’ path any easier politically." And if Obama's going to pick Yellen, he shouldn't be the last one to speak up for her.

Photos via AP.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.