President Obama is having a busy week.
He's trying to build support for military action against Syria. He's meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. And he's scrambling to put together a deal with Congress to raise the debt limit and avoid a government shutdown.
With so much going on, why in the world is Barack Obama picking a fight with the nation's women?
Obama's choice of a new chair for the Federal Reserve is expected within the next few weeks, and the two finalists are said to be current Fed Vice-Chair Janet Yellen and former treasury secretary and presidential adviser Larry Summers.
There has never been a woman chair of the Fed, and correcting that inequity is long overdue, but it's also true that Dr. Yellen is the best person for the job, male or female.
Janet Yellen was one of the few in the Fed system to sound the alarm on subprime mortgages in 2007, while Lawrence Summers shut down Brooksley Born's effort to crack down on derivatives. It's not hard to connect the dots: lax regulation contributed to the financial meltdown that ushered in the 'Great Recession' -- with devastating impacts on women, who have less savings to fall back on because of an enduring gender wage gap. Lawrence Summers can't be trusted to understand the everyday economic problems women face.
What's more, in 2005, the National Organization for Women called for Summers to be fired as President of Harvard after he said that women might lack an "intrinsic aptitude" for science and engineering. This was no slip of the tongue or awkward misunderstanding. Summers' comments meet the definition of a Washington gaffe as described by writer Michael Kinsley:
when a politician tells the truth -- or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head.
As I told Politico last week, Lawrence Summers is a sexist who isn't the best person for this job, and NOW is prepared to fight his nomination.
But I hope it doesn't come to that. President Obama has an opportunity to appoint a first-rate steward of our nation's monetary policy who would also make history as the first woman to chair the Fed.
As Paul Krugman wrote:
Can a woman effectively run the Federal Reserve? That shouldn't even be a question. And Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Fed's Board of Governors, isn't just up to the job; by any objective standard, she's the best-qualified person in America to take over when Ben Bernanke steps down as chairman.
Yet there are not one but two sexist campaigns under way against Ms. Yellen. One is a whisper campaign whose sexism is implicit, while the other involves raw misogyny. And both campaigns manage to combine sexism with very bad economic analysis.
Krugman points to an editorial in the New York Sun that said inflation would get worse if the dollar becomes "gender-backed," a position that was then endorsed by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
Paul Krugman also cites the "whispering campaign" described in the Washington Post that Yellen lacks "toughness," is short on "gravitas," and is too "soft-spoken" or "passive."
If Barack Obama is listening to these lies and whispers, the question has to be asked -- does Barack Obama have a problem with strong, opinionated women in his administration who challenge him when he's wrong?
NOW has said from the beginning of President Obama's second term that women need to be included at the very core of his adviser circle. Last May, when the president filled out his second-term Cabinet with the appointment of Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce, the New York Times quoted me saying,
NOW is particularly concerned that the main group of advisers who have the president's ear not just on occasion, but three, four, five times a day, is still overwhelmingly male.
Some of the women President Obama should be listening to most carefully right now are Democratic Senators facing tough re-election contests in 2014 -- women like Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), as well as men like Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), and Mark Pryor (D-Ark).
If President Obama forces these Democrats to vote for Larry Summers, he jeopardizes their support from women -- voters who can make all the difference in a close election. But Barack Obama, who will never have to face the voters again, is thumbing his nose at his Senate allies who won't do him any good if they're not re-elected.
That's one of the reasons why a growing group of Senate Democrats are signing on to a letter being circulated by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that calls on Obama to nominate Janet Yellen.
According to Politico, the letter to President Obama says:
"Just as you read ten constituent letters every day to remain connected to the everyday lives of American families, the next chairman must also recognize that the unemployment numbers that come across her desk are, in Governor Yellen's words, 'not just statistics.'"
Every woman who's struggling to make it through today's tough economy knows this is true.
When women make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men -- a number that goes down to 59 cents for Latinas and 64 cents for African-American women, there is no safety net or "rainy day fund" protecting against job loss.
For these women, it's raining every day.
President Obama needs to ask himself this question: Is losing control of the U.S. Senate worth it to him, just so he can nominate a Fed Chair he likes to hang out with?
I've checked -- and there's nothing in the Federal Reserve charter that says a Fed Chair is supposed to advance a president's economic policy, or run political cover for an administration taking flak from Congress.
And speaking of Congress, does anyone think that the Republicans will let a Summers nomination slide through unchallenged -- or will they pull out the stops to keep the nomination on the floor as long as possible as they tie Summers to every economic policy the Republicans don't like?
But Janet Yellen won Senate confirmation to her original term on the Federal Reserve in a 94-6 vote, and sailed through her confirmation as Fed Vice Chair on a voice vote. Few think that Senate Republicans would now switch gears and oppose a nominee they've supported so strongly before.
Women, working families, the elderly and everyone struggling in today's economy need an ally at the Fed, not an ambitious insider with a poor record of leadership and independence.
President Obama has had a lot to say in recent days about when a fight is worth joining. He ought to recognize that the last thing he needs right now is to antagonize women, put Senate control at risk and invite a bloody confirmation fight by nominating a man who's wrong for the job as chair of the Federal Reserve.