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09.21.10

After Summers, More Brawling

The departure of Larry Summers leaves a power vacuum in Washington. Look for Obama’s Chicago circle to fill it—and watch the gloves come off.

Larry Summers has succeeded. We don’t yet know whether historians will judge the economic policy that he masterminded a success, but we do know that they’ll be judging him on economic policy, not on his assessment of women’s aptitude in science. He took a job that most former Treasury secretaries would have considered beneath them in part, at least, in a bid for redemption. He didn’t achieve that in his 18 months as economic czar, but he changed the subject, which is the first step.

Whoever takes Summers’ place, he or she is unlikely to possess as much high-level governmental experience or as fearsome an intellectual reputation, which means the job of National Economic Council head will become less influential, as it was before Summers arrived. (Trivia question: Who was Summers’ predecessor? Answer: a young former congressional aide named Keith Hennessey.)

Who’ll Replace Larry Summers?The person most likely to fill the power gap is Austan Goolsbee, newly promoted to head the Council of Economic Advisers, a former University of Chicago professor who enjoyed a close relationship with Obama but was regularly big-footed by Summers. If Summers’ departure does signal Goolsbee’s ascent, it will represent an odd inverse of the Clinton pattern. When Clinton got into trouble, he replaced Arkansas loyalists like chief of staff Mack McLarty with Washington insiders like Leon Panetta and David Gergen. But in Obama’s season of discontent, the pendulum may be shifting the other way. Goolsbee is an FOB from Chicago; Summers is a Clintonite who parachuted in after Obama won the nomination. Similarly, Rahm Emanuel, although a Chicago native, is a Clinton administration veteran and Washington insider who didn’t even endorse Obama in the primaries. His likely departure could mean more power for David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s two closest allies from the Windy City.

What will this mean for the way the White House handles the Tea-soaked Republicans likely to come rampaging through Congress after November? Just a guess, but I’d predict less conciliation and more brawling. Somehow, I don’t think this is going to be Dick Morris II.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.