Summers To Leave Obama's Economic Team

White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers will leave the Obama administration at the end of the year. He's the latest member of the president's economic inner circle to depart, and leaves the administration having to pick a new team of advisers at a time when confidence in the economic recovery remains in short supply.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Another one of President Obama's top economic advisers is leaving the administration. Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, will rejoin the faculty of Harvard University after the November mid-term elections. His departure was announced by the White House yesterday, and NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie joins us to talk about what it means.

Good morning, John.

JOHN YDSTIE: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So John, Summers was one of the chief architects of the president's economic policies, which are getting a lot of criticism these days. Is this a here's your hat, what's your hurry kind of situation?

YDSTIE: No one I've talked to suggests that he is being forced to leave. In fact, Summers had indicated he would leave the administration after two years. And when President Obama reappointed Ben Bernanke last summer to be chairman of the Federal Reserve, a job that Summers was said to have been interested in, that probably clinched the deal.

I think people were a bit surprised by the timing of the announcement, coming before the election instead of after. And one administration insider I talked to suggested maybe Summers announced his departure before the election in order to avoid being made a scapegoat if the election goes badly for Democrats.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you can imagine a situation where after the election the president would decide to shake up his economic team and go in a different direction. The budget chief, Peter Orszag, is gone. Christine Romer, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers, is gone. With Summers gone, that just leaves Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner from the original team. Is this really a shake-up?

YDSTIE: I dont think its an intentional shake-up. All these people appear to have left on their own accord. But given all the controversy over the struggling economy, President Obama may be happy to have the chance to reshape his team.

WERTHEIMER: It looks, I would say, that Summers certainly would have to take a good deal of responsibility or credit or whatever for the administration's policies.

YDSTIE: Absolutely. He was deeply involved in shaping the controversial stimulus package, for instance. Some economists argue it saved the U.S. economy from a Depression. But, of course, Republicans especially argue it was a waste of money. Summers was also architect of the auto industry bailout and one of the architects of the financial reform package, which again, are viewed as successes by some and bad policy by others.

President Obama offered his opinion yesterday in the White House statement announcing Summers' departure, he said we are on a better path thanks in no small measure to Larry's wise counsel.

WERTHEIMER: He did have a reputation, Larry Summers, for being abrasive or arrogant. Do you think that that got in the way of what he was trying to do for the president?

YDSTIE: Well, being head of the National Economic Council may not have been the best fit for Summers. Its supposed to be an honest broker for policies going to the president, and sources say Summers was often more interested in promoting his own ideas than those of others.

WERTHEIMER: Who replaces him?

YDSTIE: There's reports the president will name a business person to try to repair relations with the business community, which has complained that they dont have a voice in the White House. One name being circulated is Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, John.

YDSTIE: Youre welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's John Ydstie.

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