The perils of Ben Bernanke

Opposition to the Fed chair's renomination is rising. For Obama, nothing will be easy in 2010

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 22, 2010 2:59PM (EST)

Is Ben Bernanke's hold on a second term as Federal Reserve Chairman starting to slip? As a growing number of senators from both parties declare their opposition to his renomination, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been forced to delay a confirmation vote, reports the Wall Street Journal. Reid now is expected to call for a cloture vote, possibly early next week, to see if 60 senators can be rallied to prevent the possibility of an anti-Bernanke filibuster.

If cloture passes, then a simple majority vote will be all that is necessary for confirmation, and that shouldn't be a problem. But in the current political climate, in which the only thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on is their anger at the status quo, anything is possible.  Bernanke is in a tight spot, and Obama is going to join him there, should Bernanke's nomination go down in flames. There's no easy answer for either of them.

For example, Simon Johnson has a new post at The Baseline Scenario calling for another confirmation hearing for Bernanke, and listing three questions that the Fed Chair should answer. All the questions have to do with Bernanke's position on the banking reform initiative unveiled by the president on Thursday. Johnson's position is that if Bernanke wants to shore up his "weakening position" he must answer these questions in "convincing detail" -- which I assume means, given Johnson's own strong opinions on breaking up the banks, that Bernanke must come out in favor of dramatic action curtailing the power of too-big-to-fail institutions.

But even if Bernanke could bring all the Democrats back into the fold by going all populist on the banks, such a stance would doubtless further alienate Republicans (and possibly even a few "moderate" Dems). And even though the GOP is talking a good anti-fat cat game, the last thing Republicans are going to do is back any regulation that meaningfully restrains Wall Street, especially now that the party is poised to gain its 41st vote, and enjoy effective veto power over anything the majority wants.

Likewise, suppose Bernanke is not confirmed. What does Obama do then? If he nominates someone more progressive, the party of no will rally against him with renewed fervor. If he nominates someone more conservative, his own party will rebel.

Maybe Obama and his advisors thought they could avoid a pitched political battle over the next Federal Reserve chairman by renominating Bernanke. They were wrong. From here on out, everything will be a struggle.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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