Behind Christina Romer’s Poorly Timed Departure

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Council of Economic Advisers chair Christina Romer is leaving the White House. Office Of Management And Budget director Peter Orszag has left the White House. Get ready for more to come. The midterm is fast approaching, and this is traditionally a time for rotation. The potential reasons are many–family, really; the need to make more money; internal White House conflict; concerns over post mid-term stagnation on Capitol Hill; the need to prepare for the 2012 reelection bid; exhaustion. What is surprising about Romer’s departure is not that it happened, but the timing, which may have been forced by a report Thursday afternoon in Hotline.

Today we get more quantitative evidence from the government that the economy is sputtering, and losing some momentum. The unemployment rate is holding steady at 9.5 percent, as private sector payroll failed in July to grow fast enough to counteract the decline in government jobs as stimulus spending ebbs. Revisions for June also showed more bad news, with payrolls dropping about 100,000 jobs more than had been previously projected.

Normally, Romer would be making the cable news rounds at a time like this. Her main public role, after all, was to spin economic reports, in soundbites and blog posts. But so far she is missing in action, presumably wanting to avoid becoming an example of the lack of cohesion among the senior economic leadership. [UPDATE: Moments after I published this post, Romer appeared on Bloomberg News, making her usual rounds. She said reports that she left because of internal tensions were “absolutely false, and than she considered Summers one of her “friends.”]

While one can take Romer’s family reasons at face value–she says she wants to be in California for when her son starts high school–there is no doubt that Romer’s time at the White House has not been without its troubles. One yelling match between Romer and Larry Summers was documented in Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, after Summers tried to prevent her from attending meetings with the president. “Don’t you bully me,” Romer was quoted as saying.

At a March 29 symposium on women in finance at the Treasury Department, Romer expanded on some of the frustrations she has had on the job. “I think the other thing that I have definitely noticed in the White House and elsewhere is just difference in how people communicate, right?” she said. “I’ve never had to interrupt people before in my life, right? This is, sort of,  just simply the aggressiveness or the taking turns. . . . You just — sometimes, you’ve got to speak up even when there isn’t a gap in the conversation.”

Summers over-sized role as the director of the National Economic Council has long been a recognized problem inside the White House. The concern is that, in addition to being a cagey bureaucratic fighter, Summers had transformed a position designed for an honest broker into a place for advocating his own positions. Romer is by no means the only one who has chafed at his ways. But there is no clear evidence that Romer would have stayed even if Summers still ran Harvard University, and there is nothing, at this point, to guarantee that Summers himself is not already preparing an announcement that he will be moving on as well. The first chapter of the Obama presidency is coming to an end.