If top brass at the White House wanted a sense of public opinion on Larry Summers, they got it, and then some.
In late July, the first rumors trickled out that the White House was considering the former Treasury Secretary to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. Current Chairman Ben Bernanke's second term is up at the end of this year, and few expect him to stick around for another term.
Since the Summers chatter began, the backlash has come from all corners. Democratic members of Congress signed a letter endorsing current Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen for the job. A Friday CNBC poll showed not only that 2.5 percent of Wall Street professionals want Summers as chairman, but that they have five preferences ahead of Summers (with Yellen overwhelmingly leading the pack). In addition, the New York Times wrote a scathing editorial blasting Summers and supporting Yellen.
Of course, Summers hasn't been nominated yet – the White House has said President Barack Obama won't nominate anyone until the fall, so this could be considered Summers' trial balloon phase. However, the White House has continually advocated for Summers. High-level sources indicated to both the Washington Post's Ezra Klein and CNBC's John Harwood that Summers was a top pick – comments that launched the Summers talk. And House Democrats reported Wednesday that the president staunchly defended Summers in a meeting this week. (Kelly Friendly, spokeswoman for Summers, declined to comment for this story.)
If the president is really considering whether to stand behind Summers, here are the three questions he may want to ask himself.
1) Is it a winnable fight?
The arguments made against Summers are manifold: He's too fond of deregulation. He's a sexist. He's not as qualified as Yellen. He's too polarizing. He's difficult to get along with.
All of those questions could combine to make one contentious confirmation hearing. Though it's true that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said Democrats would fall in line behind Summers, plenty of Democrats appear to have strong reservations. Majority Whip Dick Durbin has said he "would have a lot of questions" for Summers, as quoted by Bloomberg, and Oregon's Jeff Merkley has said he's "extraordinarily skeptical that [Summers'] background is appropriate."
True, Yellen could face her own issues on the Hill – some senators may not appreciate her dovish monetary policy stance. But Summers' more controversial views – particularly his 2005 statements on women's aptitudes in math and science, not to mention his strong deregulatory stance during the Clinton era – will definitely ruffle feathers.
2) How effective could he be?
Yes, he has upset plenty of people, but when it comes to being a smart economist, it doesn't matter whether or not Summers is Mr. Congeniality. If he can find the magic combination of interest rates and balance sheet size that can bring about a faster recovery, then he would be a truly great Fed chairman. And Obama is likely looking for someone who can boost the recovery (and give him some credit for it) before he leaves office.
"Summers' main strength is that the guy who makes the decisions, who sits in the Oval Office, appears to favor him," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Most people think [the economy]'s still lousy, and Obama hasn't gotten much credit, so he wants somebody who does what needs to be done."
Of course, Yellen could do that as well. Yellen and Summers are both by all accounts intelligent, capable economists, and several commentators have pointed out that there appear to be few differences between the two on key monetary policy issues. Summers was considering the idea of interest-rate thresholds well before the Fed adopted that policy, for example.
The trump card here may simply be trust. The president has worked closely with Summers before, when Summers served as director of the National Economic Council in 2009 and 2010. It makes sense, then, from this angle that Obama trusts Summers more at the helm of the central bank.
3) What are the downsides?
If Summers were to make it through a difficult confirmation, life at the top of the Fed could be no easier. Even with his long list of qualifications, some have questioned whether his personality itself is going to be a problem. In "Confidence Men", Ron Suskind portrayed Summers as a highly opinionated, forceful, even argumentative advisor to the president. That may not go over as well at the Fed as it does in the White House.
"He's a hot personality, certainly, compared to Bernanke," says Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College. "What's the m.o. for a Fed chair? A cool personality. Because any fragment of any sentence uttered in a public forum could affect the stock market in a dramatic fashion."
In the twilight of the quantitative easing era, a propensity for brash statements could be damaging. Bernanke has found that mentioning tapering can send the stock market sliding and treasury yields spiking. For Obama, that's a big risk.
"I suppose to the extent that Summers is the bull in the china shop and breaks china, Obama will be blamed as much as Summers. That's the downside for Obama," says Sabato.
In addition, the Fed chairman heads up an organization full of intelligent, often very opinionated economists. The Federal Open Market Committee in particular is a body with a wide range of inflation hawks and doves. A bull in that china shop could be particularly problematic.