At a morning question-and-answer session in September, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke remarked that technically, the recession was "very likely over." The stock market closed that day at a new high for the year.
That a mild-mannered 55-year-old who spent half his life in the academic refuges of Stanford and Princeton would attain such real-world power might be surprising. But ever since the economy plunged in 2007, he's been one of the most visible, and powerful, faces of monetary policy.
"I come from Main Street," the Dillon, S.C., native told CBS earlier this year. "I've never been on Wall Street, and I care about Wall Street for one reason and one reason only: because what happens on Wall Street matters to Main Street." He didn't enter government until 2002, as a Fed board member under Alan Greenspan. And when Bernanke became chairman in 2006, he largely continued Greenspan's laissez-faire policies.
But all of that changed with the recession—though not soon enough, say critics. After months of underestimating the crisis, the Fed launched what Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has called "the Bernanke doctrine" in August 2008, which included lending programs for financial institutions to the tune of some $1 trillion. The Fed's power expanded further in the fall when it rescued Bear Stearns and AIG (but allowed other firms, like Lehman Brothers, to fail). To Bernanke, who penned a 1983 article on how the Fed's failure to save banks helped cause the Great Depression, intervention was imperative.
As the country emerges from recession, it seems that he may have been right.