In the daily briefings, also attended by other top policymakers, including Geithner, Summers isn't shy about making his own preferences known. But the goal is to make sure the president hears all the arguments — before a decision is made, not afterward when the talking heads on cable TV begin picking it apart.
In the administration's early days, one question surrounded the interaction between Geithner and Summers. There was talk that rival Treasury and White House power centers would jostle for policy supremacy. So far, if the process hasn't been perfect, there's no indication of the sort of institutional paralysis that has bedeviled other administrations. "They battle intellectually sometimes, but in a very friendly and collegial way. … Each is the one the other would most want to reach consensus with," Sperling says.
On this day in mid-May, Summers' briefing includes developments in the Treasury bond market, an update on General Motors' march toward bankruptcy court and the financial unraveling of the state of California. Later, for someone with his fingers in just about every aspect of the worst financial crisis since the Depression, Summers appears relaxed. Obama is tied up with his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, so for the moment, the intense presidential spotlight has lifted from the economic team.
The economic data lately, though mixed, have been better than during the white-knuckle months in late 2008 and early 2009, when the prospect of a global cataclysm akin to the Great Depression seemed very real. Both the U.S. and global economies are still shrinking, but at a less rapid rate.
Summers welcomes the relative improvement but is keeping the champagne corked. "I don't think there's anything that gives any grounds for serenity or complacency," he says.
In the interview, he sketches a comprehensive strategy linking the administration's ambitious health care and energy agendas to economic recovery. The president has been criticized for trying to do too much at once: repair the nation's banks, auto companies and insurers while simultaneously reforming the health care system and promoting green technologies and energy independence.
But Summers makes clear that health care and energy reforms are meant to have essential economic consequences.
"The last two economic expansions have been more bubble-driven than fundamentals-driven. So addressing this most serious of recessions in a maximally effective and credible way requires setting the stage for a different kind of expansion," Summer says.
By lowering costs, health care reform "will act as a spur to business investment." Likewise, resolving uncertainty over future energy costs will unlock pent-up corporate investment in "greener" systems. The idea is that surging investment can fill the hole in the economy left by the collapse of consumer spending — as soon as this year.
It's a coherent vision. But there are doubts about whether those reforms will actually occur this year, whether even if they do, businesses will be quite so optimistic about potential cost savings, and about how much new investment will result at a time when so much excess capacity already exists in the economy.