The whisper campaign against Janet Yellen began long before she was officially nominated to become the Federal Reserve chair -- arguably the second most powerful position in the country. (My apologies to Joe Biden. Honesty is sometimes brutal.) Last summer the Obama administration floated three possible replacements for Ben Bernanke: current Fed Vice-chair Yellen, economist and former Fed Vice-chair Donald Kohn, and the controversial Laurence Summers. Although Summers quickly rose to the top of the list, President Obama underestimated Democrats' distaste for Summers -- who supported deregulation of the banking industry when he served in the Clinton administration.
In a highly unusual move, 20 U.S. senators -- our own Bernie Sanders included--drafted a letter in support of a Janet Yellen nomination, signaling that they would not support Summers' confirmation. In September Saunders released a statement decrying Summers: "What the American people want now is a Fed chairman prepared to stand up to the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street -- not a Wall Street insider." Democrats' public support of Yellen, coupled with the lukewarm reception of Summers by the Republicans on the Senate banking committee, meant that a Summers confirmation would be a tough fight. Summers withdrew his name for consideration, but not before members of his team started a campaign against Yellen.
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and Matthew O'Brien of The Atlantic have both written about the subtle sexist attacks on Yellen, which started when some within the Summers camp asserted that Yellen lacked the requisite "gravitas" for the job. They claimed she lacked the grit or nerve to face a financial crisis. The soft-spoken Bernanke -- who came to the Fed Chair with considerably less experience than Yellen -- did not face similar opposition. O'Brien quips that this may have something to do with his masculine beard, but it most certainly does not have to do with his public speaking strength. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bernanke hired a public speaking coach to help him make stronger, clearer statements that would not be misinterpreted by the markets -- his Achilles heel during his first term.
"Gravitas" aside, Janet Yellen would be "perhaps the most qualified Fed chair in history," according to Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post's Wonkblog. Not even highly-esteemed economist Paul Volcker -- who chaired the Fed under presidents Carter and Reagan and is credited with ending high levels of inflation -- had the experience that Yellen brings to the job. Matthews asserts that Volcker "had nowhere near as much exposure to the highest echelons of the Fed system as Yellen has." More importantly, by the Wall Street Journal's analysis Yellen's record of predictions is better than any of her Fed colleagues in recent years. She was one of the few at the Fed who accurately predicted that the subprime crisis was not over in 2007 and that the U.S. was in real danger of a credit crunch and subsequent recession.
So, what gives? If she's supremely qualified, highly respected, and is an economic soothsayer, why the resistance to Yellen's nomination? Jena McGregor of the Washington Post's online column "On Leadership" teases out reasons in a recent post. McGregor points out that new studies show that although women leaders, who used to be penalized for assertiveness, now have more freedom to be bold and decisive without being penalized, another "double bind" for women has emerged. A paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology describes a study in which women leaders were penalized for not demonstrating assertive, forceful behaviors while male leaders were given permission not to. McGregor concludes, "In other words, they're damned if they do and doomed if they don't."
This "gravitas" drama reminds me of two other memorable nominations. Remember when George W. Bush floated White House counsel Harriet Miers to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor? Conservatives howled because the dark horse Miers did not have a public, conservative track record. But I felt indignant about her nomination because there were so many other supremely qualified right-leaning women candidates: Karen Williams, Alice Batchelder, Maura Corrigan and Maureen Mahoney among them. He seemed to have picked Miers because she was a decent lawyer who would be loyal to the Bush Doctrine. By passing over much more qualified female legal minds with considerable constitutional law experience, Bush signaled that any woman would do.
I had the same feeling when John McCain tapped Sarah Palin, a rookie governor with very little experience or track record. Granted, there are many factors involved in a vice presidential pick, but Sarah Palin was the only woman on McCain's short list. He didn't seriously consider accomplished GOP women like Christie Todd Whitman, Kay Baily Hutchinson, Olympia Snowe or Jodi Rell. It's hard not to believe he wanted a "trophy" candidate in much the same way that some older men want to bring a younger woman to a party. If this sounds harsh, consider what McCain quipped multiple times when female U.S. senators took the initiative last week to end the government shutdown: "The women are taking over." (Women still make up only 1/5 of the upper chamber of Congress.)
Len Burman -- a former colleague of Yellen's in the Clinton Administration--recently wrote about his overwhelmingly positive experience working with Yellen: "Imagine having a Fed Chair who is not only brilliant and persuasive, but also modest. Imagine a Fed Chair who could build consensus, who would not leave colleagues feeling they have been brow-beaten or berated, but rather persuaded. If she makes a decision they disagree with, they won't feel disrespected."
I'll take brilliance and collegiality over "gravitas" any day.