As the Janet Yellen-Larry Summers competition to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve intensifies, President Barack Obama has a third option, which is his first choice: former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
This alternative is unlikely, however, for two reasons: Geithner really doesn't want the job right now, and it has rarely been Obama's style to pressure or cajole anyone to take a post in his Cabinet.
The public airing of the Summers-versus-Yellen debate has made the selection more controversial. Summers, who served as President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary and was Obama's chief economic adviser, would face a difficult Senate confirmation.
The president, according to people familiar with his thinking, believes Summers has the experience and expertise to succeed Ben Bernanke. No one doubts Yellen's credentials as an economist, but questions have been raised, mainly by those in the Summers camp, about whether she has the gravitas to manage a financial crisis.
Those same questions were raised about Bernanke when he was selected to succeed Alan Greenspan. Now, Obama believes it was precisely such gravitas that enabled Bernanke to play such an important role during the fiscal crisis. Obama also believes that the work that he, Bernanke and Geithner did a year ago saved Europe from financial chaos.
Geithner has reportedly told friends and associates that he has no interest in returning to the pressure cooker of public service, opting instead for some personal time and an opportunity to make some money.
Obama, who once before chose Geithner over Summers -- for Treasury secretary in 2009 -- did manage to persuade Geithner to stay at his post for the final year of the first term. But the president is loath to spend time and personal capital in trying to persuade someone who doesn't want the job. The only way that will change, Obama watchers believe, is if the current situation gets messier. Bernanke's term expires in January and the chairman has made it clear he does not wish to be reappointed.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)