Larry Summers and Tim Geithner deserve our gratitude. If you have a job, it may very well have been saved by abilities and experience specific only to them. According to most economists, we could very well be living in the post-apocalyptic chaos of a full-blown global depression if the right actions hadn't been taken.
The toxic banking system, our Bankenstein, had become so corpulent that the entire global economy teetered on its shoulders. It had gone rotten to the bone and head-to-toe transplants would be necessary. But first it would need to be stable enough for the procedures. It would need instant open-heart surgery while standing up in a malarial jungle.
There were no two better-equipped surgeons than Summers and Geithner to perform the operation. After all, with the best intentions, I believe, they had been among the brilliant scientists in the laboratory when Bankenstein was conceived as a positive economic force strong enough to lift all boats. They had helped to sequence its bold new DNA. In the end, the unfathomably complex surgery was masterful, requiring the mental expansiveness of a physicist and the dexterity of a NASCAR mechanic.
With no irony, I am incredibly grateful to them. I make my home in Rhode Island, where the unemployment rate has been above 10% for a year and peaked at 13% this summer. But a number can't begin to express the pain we've felt. In addition to the broken homes and families, our state has suffered a collective broken spirit.
Our governor - the rare conservative ideologue in these parts - has resorted to the lowest tactics of the demagogue, scapegoating undocumented immigrants and same-sex couples to unleash a fog of hate to cover his inadequacies. Imagining depression conditions means considering the reanimation of some of history's worst episodes.
Summers and Geithner were uniquely qualified for their moment, but for precisely that reason it is time for them to take a victory lap and move on to the next great enterprise. Personally, professionally, and intellectually, they are interwoven with the current banking system - a system that, though stabilized, is still fundamentally unchanged. Bankenstein still needs a total-body transplant, and that job would simply be too heart-wrenching for its fathers.
One of President Obama's most under-appreciated abilities is his sense of timing. It's at the root of his greatness as a speaker and is why he understood he should run for the presidency despite being a first-term senator with the middle name Hussein. He recognizes that rebuilding the casino economy will not solve unemployment over the long term, and he must certainly sense that now is the time to pivot from economic stabilization to economic reform. The thought of disrupting his financial team at a time when the metrics appear to be moving in the right direction must be daunting. The change would be especially difficult at Treasury, where Geithner has been building an administration.
Still, the most important attribute for the point-people on banking reform will not be any of those that were so valuable during stabilization, such as financial expertise or Wall Street connections. It will be credibility with the American people. Geithner and Summers enjoy credibility when it comes to the technical job they've performed so ably, but not when it comes to making fundamental changes to the banking system. They have built a real legacy in a short time. It will remain intact if they realize that the moment has come to take a bow and bow out.