Larry Summers finally showed some of his much-vaunted brilliant judgment yesterday, when he decided that Larry Summers should not be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. Citing the possibility of an "acrimonious" confirmation process, Summers told the president (and all the newspapers) that he has decided that maybe someone everyone hates a little less should be nominated instead, even though he has always really wanted to be Fed chair and thinks he'd be really good at it. Summers even timed it perfectly.
The volume and strength of liberal opposition to a potential Summers pick seemed to surprise both Summers' allies and liberals unused to Democrats ever actually successfully challenging Democratic presidents from the left. But once three Democratic senators on the banking committee all said they'd vote against Summers, it became clear that his nomination would be a circus. And a pointless circus, because there have been, this whole time, numerous highly qualified and entirely uncontroversial choices to run the Fed.
Summers' supporters now moan that the president didn't do enough to "push back" against the anti-Summers campaign. All the White House did was dispatch the president to personally try to sell lawmakers on Summers, plant numerous stories praising Summers in the liberal and nonpartisan press, and repeatedly claim that the most prominent other candidate for the position, Janet Yellen, was insufficiently manly. The problem wasn't a lack of effort on the president's part, the problem was the entire professional history of Larry Summers.
There never actually was a great case for picking Summers over anyone else. At least, none of the many problems liberals had with the pick were ever addressed. Most of the case for Summers relied on direct experience with his unmatched brilliance, as well as the strange belief that he was simply owed the job. "The chairmanship of the Fed isn't just a capstone to a career; it's the perfect culmination of it," Robert Lawrence wrote in the New Republic. It was as if all of America was expected to be personally invested in Summers' career having a happy ending.
President Obama is surely and understandably frustrated. This never would've happened with a Republican president and a Republican Congress. The current ongoing conservative revolt against leadership and reason is a function of being out of power. Republicans in Congress rarely challenged Bush on anything major and it seems likely that a President Romney would've dealt with a similarly pliant party.
It also never would've happened in the 1990s, making this a season of Obama having trouble getting his own party to go along with decisions that would've gone over fine had Clinton done them. If President Clinton had wanted a brief "humanitarian" airstrike against a violent authoritarian regime that posed no direct threat to the United States, he would've just done it, without much uproar, even if he didn't go to Congress. If President Clinton had wanted to appoint a bunch of deregulating neoliberals to every single major economic post in his administration, he would've done so, and indeed he did.
It's easy to look at that and say Obama is worse at "leadership" or "presidenting" or whatever, but that's not the case. Obama isn't suddenly facing tough liberal opposition, opposition that rarely phased Clinton, because Clinton was a better politician. He's facing it because Clinton didn't, and now we're living with the consequences. Clinton's foreign interventions inadvertently paved the way for Bush's horrific misadventures -- which were sold to the public with the full-throated support of the Clinton-era Tough Liberal elite. Clinton's economic "committee to save the world" eventually nearly destroyed it when their supposedly self-regulating interconnected global finance machine proved to be more dangerous and unstable than they ever imagined. This is the long-delayed Clinton hangover, and the Democratic president to follow Clinton was probably going to have to deal with it no matter what.
But that hypothetical Democratic president could've made it easier on him- or herself by not actually having anything to do with toxic failure Larry Summers.