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August 6, 2010

Why Christina Romer Wasn’t Destined to Survive the Summer(s)

Leibovitz Obama Economic Team.jpg

Back in February, I analyzed this photo of the new Administration’s economic team.  The picture was taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair as part of a series of portraits documenting a new era of hope, and Washington’s  changing of the guard.

What is hard to appreciate now is the extreme crisis atmosphere gripping the White House, with Summers,  Orszag, Geithner and Romer — here not even set up in the building — already in frenzied triage over an economy and a banking industry in free fall.

That fact is critical in understanding the “top layer” of the photo, capturing a set of facial expressions each saying, in individual ways, I haven’t got a damn second to sit for a portrait — even for God. That understood, however, there is other information here that helps explain why the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers has resigned.  Here are some visual observations that help inform the news:

1. Sommers came first, Romer came last.

2. Sommers and Romer, from day one, couldn’t have been further apart.

3. Notice Summers-Orszag-Geithner form a triangle.  From the standpoint of organization dynamics, that’s some pretty daunting geometry to be on the outside off.

4. Did someone say “boys club”?

5. If the Chairwoman was more familiar with “the altitude,” she would never have posed with a binder, appreciating how, especially being the only woman in the group, it might make you look like an admin. Alas, Romer wasn’t up to the power game.

(photo: Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair. From left: LAWRENCE SUMMERS, director, National Economic Council; PETER ORSZAG, director, Office of Management and Budget; TIMOTHY GEITHNER, secretary-designate of the Treasury; CHRISTINA ROMER, chair, Council of Economic Advisers)


  • black dog barking

    It’s hard to believe these four are looking at the same thing based on their expressions. I tried to come up with a plausible scenario explaining this collective response if they were looking at me instead of a camera. Best I could do: they are film producers, we’re in the middle of an audition, and I’ve just farted.

  • moistenedbink

    Even Orszag is on the outs in this photo because of the body language. His crossed arms say he doesn’t agree. They all look leery like they don’t trust each other or the photographer. Romer, at least, looks hopeful. As a woman, I feel that she thought she was being chosen by a progressive man and that she would be listened to and be able to make a difference. With her resignation it appears that she realizes that she can’t.

  • http://agrippinaminor.com/scarabus/ Wayne Dickson

    Ironically, I wrote the following comment in response to Stein’s post on Huff-Po:

    “Inferring just from this post, not the solid weight behind it, I take away three ideas: First, Romer seems to have represented knowledge and perspective that are matched nowhere else among Obama’s team of economic advisers. Second, Romer lacked the “juice” to bring her knowledge and perspective effectively to bear. (Focus on the fact, not on assigning fault, please.) Third, the next move is what really matters: replacing Romer with someone who matches her in knowledge and perspective but exceeds her in ability to elbow a way into the inner circle (boys’ club?) where decisions really are made.”

    Boys’ club?

    Sommers has an open posture, everyone else’s is closed. Romer’s closed posture is reinforced by the folders. And her separateness is emphasized by the color of her garb.

    Geithner’s closed manner, here and always, always emphasized by the tilted posture of his head, seems to me less defensive than defiant. Like a poker player, determined not to betray any “tells.”

    What does research suggest Romer’s avoirdupois might predict? Not talking about right or wrong, justified or unjustified. Just predictive statistics.

  • moistenedbink

    Wayne, as a woman, lacking the “juice” as you say to elbow into the boy’s club should not be a reflection on Romer. Over the years I have attempted to share my ideas and perspectives with various boards and employers only to be ignored or shot down and to find that several years later my original ideas or recommendations start to come to fruition. A fellow female employee told me that I had to drip, drip the idea into male brains until they thought it was their idea and could present it as such and then it would get done. As much as I would love to see males evolve and progress this appears to be true at most if not all levels. They cannot accept a female having a great idea and crediting her with such. I’m sorry, but a great idea or concept is great no matter what gender it comes from. Men have to grow the F up.

    • http://agrippinaminor.com/scarabus/ Wayne Dickson

      Oh, I agree, moistenedbink. Remember that I said, “(Focus on the fact, not on assigning fault, please.)”

  • jmac

    Summers is smugly thinking that innate differences between the boys and the girl might mean that woman should stay in the kitchen and out of the numbers game . . .

    as they continue to pull the admin down with their economic decisions.

  • jonst

    So Bag, you set up the woman as victim. Again. She was weak, ineffective, bureaucratic from the beginning. This was due, for the most part, as a result of her own ineffectiveness. And the ungenerous act of Obama picking someone way in over her head. I’ve heard her speak. I’ve hear her reason. She could teach kindergarten, or perhaps, undergrad Introduction to Economics. Although she seemed like the only nice person one among this motley bunch of self promoters and schemers. But that was her problem, Bag, she took the job.

    • jmac

      Since she, Krugman and Warren were right and Geithner and Summers are the ineffective power brokers, maybe the blame rests on the guy at the top – where the buck stops.

    • http://bagnews.com/staff/#mshaw Michael Shaw

      Again?

    • jonst

      Yes, “again”, that is my general impression. Often times you are correct in iding the victim. But it seems to me often times you are not. My impressions, like all impressions, are not infallible. But I stand by this one.

    • jonst

      Jmac….the buck always stops at the top is a meaningless cliche these days. “The Top”, all “Tops”, are good, if good at anything, of spinning away the blame even as they *appear* noble accepting it. So yeah, the buck stop at the top. For a minute.

      Krugman, and James Galbreith, among others, spoke out. Rommer did not. Let him, or her, whom the Cap fits wear it. And before you say ‘well she was inside tent, she surely spoke out to Obama’. First. Maybe. Second, if she did she was ineffectual. Third she did not go public with her opinion. It IS occasionally done. See Paul O’Neil. Screw her. She gets no respect from me AS AN OFFICIAL. As a person, I suspect she is a very decent one. And by the way, I repeat, while it is not her fault I believe she is totally ineffective as a communicator. Though I stand by my comment, she would make an excellent grade school teacher. And, perhaps, an under grad professor as well.

    • jmac

      And are you going to put the blame on Warren as they roll the bus over her, jonst? Might as well put the blame on Krugman since Obama listens to neither of them.

  • Gerry Desrosiers

    Suits. It’s hard to beat suits. And power ties. Romer just looks school-marmish in this photo, not powerful at all.

    Doesn’t matter that, ultimately, she was right about the needed size of the stimulus. Summers went for the “elegant” solution instead and gave Obama only two options out of three, and the lady in the pajamas didn’t make the cut.

  • Stella

    This is a picture of a team? I’ve seen way better work. My impression is that it was Leibovitz who couldn’t be bothered.

    • thomas

      No kidding! I like the idea of Summers reacting to Leibovitz saying, “Well, I’ve got my own problems, you know.”
      In any event Romer is clearly on the wrong frequency in this shot.

    • thomas

      In fact, looking at it this way, everybody could seem to be reacting to a really disorganized or disconnected photographer. Maybe it’s that Romer is just being more patient or she’s trying to help a tense situation by affecting a benign pleasantness.

    • thomas

      All right. Whatever else this image may say about gender politics I’m going to go with the interpretation that they’re all primarily responding in different ways to an unprepared and disorganized photographer. It doesn’t supply any insight into the dynamics of Romer’s departure, but it does offer a unified explanation for their seemingly disparate attitudes.

    • thomas

      As though they assembled for this portrait only to find Leibovitz running the shoot in a surprisingly amateurish way, or with a tone of glamour or flattery that seemed discordant with the catastrophic circumstances. In which case the difference in reactions — more open disbelief and irritation among the gentlemen and silent accommodation from the lady — seem more readable. Romer’s not on the wrong frequency, she’s just responding in a different (and even gender-specific) way to the same thing: having to indulge somebody who is behaving in some inappropriate way.

  • http://motherrr.blogspot.com cmac

    I’ve seen this picture before, and it seems to me the analysis was predictive of the ultimate outcome.

    As a retired female engineer (and the only female on the team for something like five years) I can attest to the difficulties she faced dealing with three power-broker-type men. There is no other way to describe them than as powerful pains-in-the-ass. I promise.

    The main things I take away from this picture are that I wouldn’t buy a car from Sommers, and I wouldn’t want to live next door to Geithner.

  • http://leftistmoon.wordpress.com Wordsmith

    Tim Geithner always strikes me as a kid on the verge of throwing a temper tantrum. Like the guy who wouldn’t go with us to Nurnberg because I was driving. I didn’t know what that was about then and didn’t care. Same with Geithner. I don’t trust him. As for Summers – geez.

  • http://mnfu.wordpress.com Dan

    Does anyone else think that the three men were all inspired by Mad Men when they posed? That was the first thing that jumped at me.

  • http://dottedyellowline.wordpress.com/ k

    Annie Leibovitz shot this. Annie Leibovitz posed them. Annie Leibovitz chose the split second to click the shutter. I’d bet Annie Leibovitz picked the image.
    Now, what would you say it shows?

  • http://bagnews.com/staff/#mshaw Michael Shaw

    To k and Thomas, in particular. You might be missing the context explained at the beginning of the post. The first link — to my original use of the photo (“Leibovitz The Pest, Among Other Things“) — is even more specific. The economy was caving in and these four, particularly, were under enormous pressure before and immediately after inauguration day to produce. What the photo shows is irritation on all their faces. If Romer shows a little more patience and perhaps a tad of empathy, also, the group is still put out for having to take the time to pose.

    If you check out #13 in the original slideshow, you’ll notice a similar vibe from Axelrod, Rouse, Rahm and Jarrett. The feeling is: “Can we just get this over with?”

    • thomas

      Of course! I ought to have reviewed and refreshed prior to improvising comments. And I really haven’t anything to contribute at this point beyond saying that if reluctance on the part of these folks to play along with Leibovitz’s leadership is met with the retaliation of the editorial inclusion of such unflattering portraits, it could be that the most significant narrative we’re really looking at is just how combat is waged among absurdly ambitious people: with endless informal, subtle and persistent socially dominating behaviors.

      But if I could throw in one last remark: I have to consider it possible that Leibovitz, whose reputation and identity is built on associations with rock stars, actors, artists and cultural icons whose careers span decades if not generations, may have correctly intuited that she had more to gain by distancing herself from these suited-up little groups of administrative temps than by seeking to capture the realities of their lives. That is, she needed a loaded entertainment image without the aid of a props department and ticking them off would have suited her purpose. So I wonder if that condescending binder Romer is holding isn’t a theatrically deliberate provocation. If the “boys-club” feel isn’t the very contrivance they are resisting.

    • thomas

      The construct would make Romer’s mild accommodation more understandable since she alone is being lauded while the other three are unambiguously cast as the bad guys. The offense registering in their expressions (independent of their consulting with each other) seems to suggest they don’t like the direction at all.

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