Summers’s end: the White House exodus continues

So, now Larry Summers’s decision to depart the White House is official. (See below for my thoughts on his departure when it only seemed likely.)  It says something about how tough things are at the White House these days that Summers is departing it for the warm embrace of Harvard, the site of his last ...

FENG LI/AFP/Getty Images
FENG LI/AFP/Getty Images
FENG LI/AFP/Getty Images

So, now Larry Summers's decision to depart the White House is official. (See below for my thoughts on his departure when it only seemed likely.) 

It says something about how tough things are at the White House these days that Summers is departing it for the warm embrace of Harvard, the site of his last great controversy. However, it also says something about the depth of Summers's relationship with the school and that some of the smartest people in the world so appreciate him, despite it all. 

He is an exceptional man and it is a pity that Obama's bungled response to a reporter's question yesterday precipitated this hasty and mismanaged announcement. But Summers is also a cautionary tale. He, like all of us in the Clinton administration, received great acclaim for economic successes that were more the result of circumstances than White House policies. And now he -- despite equally thoughtful and energetic efforts in this administration -- is on the receiving end of criticism for economic conditions over which no president could have much control.

So, now Larry Summers’s decision to depart the White House is official. (See below for my thoughts on his departure when it only seemed likely.) 

It says something about how tough things are at the White House these days that Summers is departing it for the warm embrace of Harvard, the site of his last great controversy. However, it also says something about the depth of Summers’s relationship with the school and that some of the smartest people in the world so appreciate him, despite it all. 

He is an exceptional man and it is a pity that Obama’s bungled response to a reporter’s question yesterday precipitated this hasty and mismanaged announcement. But Summers is also a cautionary tale. He, like all of us in the Clinton administration, received great acclaim for economic successes that were more the result of circumstances than White House policies. And now he — despite equally thoughtful and energetic efforts in this administration — is on the receiving end of criticism for economic conditions over which no president could have much control.

Live by people’s overestimation of the power of the presidency, die by the people’s overestimation of the power of the presidency.

For Obama, PR gaffes aside, the coming changes at the top of his team are staggering: Summers, Emanuel, Gates, in all likelihood Jones, probably Axelrod, etc. The economic team has already seen particular upheaval, with the departure of Peter Orszag and Christina Romer just two of the big names. It will be a true test of Obama to see if he really hits his own reset button in a meaningful way with big-time appointments or whether he will choose the path of least resistance and pick loyalist insiders. 

So far it looks like he has been leaning toward insiders … but hopefully that will change. Because even if the influence of the White House is less than either its critics or supporters make it out to be, it does make a difference. And now the president has the chance to start bringing in the kind of business and market savvy outsiders that could be a real team of rivals and a richer, more diverse, brain trust than he has had working for him thus far.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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