Hawkings

Did Obama Just Show the Door to Ben Bernanke?

President Barack Obama is giving a pretty strong hint that he’ll add another top-tier confirmation debate to the Senate’s agenda for the fall. That would be someone different to become chairman of the Federal Reserve in the new year.

In his interview with Charlie Rose on PBS last night, the president hinted that he would make his nominee public this summer and that it won't be Ben Bernanke, who’s been at the helm of the Fed since early 2006. Obama spoke of Bernanke’s service in the past tense and declined to say whether he would reappoint the chairman for a third term, even if Bernanke wanted to stay.

"I think Ben Bernanke's done an outstanding job. Ben Bernanke's a little bit like Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI, where he's already stayed a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to," Obama said when first asked.

When Rose asked again if Bernanke was welcome to stay on, the president replied: "He has been an outstanding partner along with the White House, in helping us recover much stronger than, for example, our European partners, from what could have been an economic crisis of epic proportions."

But the president’s comparison to the FBI boss is not quite exact. Bernanke’s term ends in January, so he’s still in the post he was confirmed for. Congress allowed Mueller to stay on the job until September, one year beyond his 10-year term, when Obama couldn't find a replacement who might get confirmed at the height of his re-election campaign. No successor has yet been formally announced for that job, either, although former senior Justice Department official James Comey is reportedly going to get the nod.

Sticking with the incumbent would have assured the smoothest possible confirmation for Fed chairman, undoubtedly one of the half-dozen most important positions in the federal government. Senators in both parties have been decidedly positive in their assessment of the central bank’s role in seeing the economy through the 2008 financial crisis and recession.

Having Bernanke exit, which is widely seen as what he wants to do, will create an opportunity for the Senate to engage in a wide-ranging debate, not only about monetary policy, but about the state of the economy and the government’s role in steering it. That's a sure bet no matter whom the president chooses.

The person widely seen as the front-runner for the Fed chairmanship is the current vice chairman, Janet Yellen, who was chairman of White House Council of Economic Advisers for President Bill Clinton. Also mentioned are Alan Krueger, who is just stepping out of that West Wing role, and a pair of former Treasury secretaries, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers.