Editorial: Fumble at the Fed

When a rookie makes a rookie mistake, it’s easy to forgive. But when an experienced veteran looks like a newcomer, well, that’s inexcusable.

And that’s the right word—inexcusable—to describe the bungled and now withdrawn nomination of Larry Summers as chairman of the Federal Reserve. It turns out that Mr. Summers wasn’t particularly popular among President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats.

What, he didn’t know that already? Why not? A couple of telephone calls to key Democratic Senators would have given the president a heads-up. And that would have avoided yet another embarrassment at the White House.

During his four-plus years in office, Mr. Obama has been notoriously aloof from the grimy stuff of government. While Republicans generally are blamed for dysfunction and disarray in Washington, it’s easy to forget that the president has done little to cultivate decision-makers on Capitol Hill – even those in his own party. Nobody expects a return to the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill had a drink after hours and at least got to know each other. But you’d think all those political operatives in the White House would have some sense of what the folks on Capitol Hill, especially their fellow Democrats, are thinking.

Here’s what they would have discovered: Many Democrats saw Mr. Summers as an opponent of stronger regulation of the financial market, which they support. The depth of opposition to Mr. Summers would have become evident had the White House had more than cursory conversations with members of the Senate Banking Committee. But according to press reports, White House aides made only token efforts to build support for Mr. Summers.

Three Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee said that they planned to vote against the Summers nomination. A fourth, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—one of Capitol Hill’s leading advocates for greater regulation—was said to be less than happy with the nomination. Did the president and his aides not realize this? Or did they move ahead anyway, convinced that they could steamroll the opposition?

Make no mistake about it: This fiasco is an all-Democrat affair. The president could rightly blame his Republican critics for blocking the nomination of Susan Rice for secretary of state earlier this year. But the failed Summers nomination has nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with a White House that can’t get out of its own way.

With only about 18 months of political relevancy left, President Obama can hardly afford these kinds of mistakes.

Neither, for that matter, can the nation.