On Sunday, Larry Summers sent President Obama a letter withdrawing his name from consideration to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, and progressives did rejoice. The news came after a protracted and heated debate, particularly for a role that doesn’t tend to get a lot of hearts racing, over who should take over when Ben Bernanke leaves in January. The contest was reportedly between Summers and Janet Yellen, who currently serves as vice-chair for the Fed.
The argument in Yellen’s favor was two-fold. She would be the first woman to ever lead the central bank, breaking a glass ceiling in economics, a world with many such ceilings. President Obama has long voiced a commitment to diversity, and here was an opportunity to bring some to a place that hasn’t seen much in its leadership (even though nearly half of the Fed’s employees are women). But she is also an easy appointment: she is eminently qualified, with more than a decade of experience at the Fed, an impeccable track record on predictions, and a mind to continue the current policies that many economists say are helping the slow economic recovery along. Summers, on the other hand, is cozy with Wall Street, which could throw a wrench into meaningful financial reform as Dodd-Frank is rolled out, and doesn’t have a great track record on predictions, particularly about the crisis.
There’s also the problem that Summers got in hot water for implying that women are less inherently able to excel at science, making his appointment instead of a historic first female nominee even more of a slap in the face.
Yet President Obama apparently resisted calls for Yellen, backing his man Larry, until it became clear that the fight to confirm Summers would be one he would lose. In his letter, Summers explains that the confirmation would be “acrimonious.” This became clear when at least five Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee said they would vote against even bringing his nomination to the floor, a coalition of progressive groups spearheaded by the National Organization for Women and Ultraviolent pushed hard against Summers’s nomination, and more than 450 economists signed onto a letter to support Yellen’s candidacy. All this to get him to drop a less qualified man for a more qualified woman.
If Yellen was such an obvious choice, then why did Obama support Summers? The argument in his favor, from the Obama camp anyway, was that he is Team Obama, through and through. He’s a familiar person, having been director of the National Economic Council in the administration and acting as a close advisor during the crisis. He’s also been in the elite world of Democratic economic policymakers for a while, having been around for the Clinton administration as well as deputy Treasury secretary. The Obama administration does not like new blood.
Obama seemed less comfortable with a newcomer. The argument against Yellen has been made mostly through whispers by advisors and others that she lacks “gravitas.” Or perhaps it’s that she is too independent of a thinker, pushing her colleagues toward better policies, or is too well prepared. Basically, she appeared to be twice as good but still fall short.
This is why the fight over whether the Fed chairmanship—which Yellen may still not get if the Obama administration wants to prove it can’t be pushed around—became more than the sum of its parts. It is a perfect parable about the enormous gulf between a stated commitment to increasing diversity and actually diversifying. President Obama has touted his record on diversity, pointing to appointments such as Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State or Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as his strong track record of getting female judges confirmed to the courts. And when some pointed out that his second term cabinet was shaping up to be just as male as the first, he asked that we “wait until they’ve seen all my appointments…before they rush to judgment.” He told us, “We’re not going backwards” on diversity, “we’re going forward.”
We waited and now it’s time to judge. As Annie Lowrey reported for the Times in August, Obama is barely keeping up with Bill Clinton’s record. Women hold about 35 percent of cabinet-level posts in Obama’s administration, compared to 41 for Clinton. As of June 2012, 43 percent of his appointees were women, about the same as under Clinton. Male appointees outnumbered women at 11 of 15 federal departments, and in some, such as the Departments of Justice, Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Energy, they outnumbered them by about two to one.
Obama has also missed some previous opportunities to make important female appointments. Many had hoped he would replace Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner with a woman such as current Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs Lael Brainard, former advisor Christina Romer, or even Yellen, but instead he picked Jack Lew. There was hope he would also name Michèle Flournoy to head the Pentagon (instead we got Chuck Hagel) or Alyssa Mastromonaco or Nancy-Ann M. DeParle to be chief of staff (instead we got Denis McDonough).
Obama has a boys’ club problem. Larry Summers was reportedly playing golf with the president while the debate raged about who would get the pick. We can be sure that Yellen didn’t get such access—of the 16 people who most frequently play golf with the president, not a single one is a woman. Every journalist has given off the record access to is a man. And then there’s the famous photo of a nearly all-male group of senior advisors briefing the president, except for the leg of Valerie Jarrett. In some ways it’s understandable that most of the people who surround the president are men. Many of the already powerful and successful in this country are. But a commitment to diversity has to be proactive, going beyond the boundaries of the in club to find those who haven’t been invited yet.
Yellen, in many ways, isn’t even the best example of that. After all, she is a nearly perfect candidate. She’s been in influential roles for at least a decade and was in the mix of the Clinton administration. Many supported her just on the merits, not even because she would break down a barrier for women. Often the choice isn’t so clear. Sometimes a consideration for diversity, for bringing in outside voices to lead our institutions, tips more balanced scales in the favor of the woman or the person of color instead of the white man. President Obama tells us that he’s committed to diversity. But he, and others who say they want more women involved, has take the opportunities that arise to follow through. We just saw how that that still can be.
This piece first appeared in The Nation