Like it or not, Larry Summers is back on the Committee to Save the World.
His first assignment came at the Treasury Department in the late 1990s, dealing with an Asian economic crisis, meltdowns in Russia and Latin America, and then the failure of the U.S. firm Long-Term Capital Management.
In February 1999, Time magazine put Mr. Summers, then the deputy Treasury secretary, on its self-dubbed CTSW cover. He stood next to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who is now tainted by Citigroup’s near-collapse, and behind then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who is now blamed by many for the current fiscal disaster.
But Mr. Summers — although he carries his own baggage after five years as president of Harvard University — is back in government as a top adviser to President-elect Barack Obama and will serve in the next White House as director of the National Economic Council. Having been President Clinton’s last Treasury Secretary, Mr. Summers enters a position that could appear to be a step backward, at least in prestige.
But those who know Mr. Summers or have watched him in action say he’ll be a dominant force inside the White House as Mr. Obama tries to bring the country back from a fiscal crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression.
“He won’t be shy. The thing about him is he doesn’t sit behind the scenes,” said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University. “He’s a forceful presence.”
“My guess is he’s going to take that position and make the most of it, and [Timothy] Geithner will have a competitor, even though he’s the secretary of the Treasury,” Mr. Zelizer said.
The knocks against Mr. Summers are by now familiar. During his five years at Harvard, his most high-profile moment came in 2005 when the school’s faculty attacked him for comments he made about differences between men and women related to their aptitude in science and engineering.
The incident is part of a litany of offenses cited by critics, such as Cornel West, a black professor of African-American studies who clashed with Mr. Summers at Harvard in 2001.
“Summers, we know, is just socially challenged. He cannot treat certain people with decency and empathy, and I’m one of them,” Mr. West said earlier this month.
Mr. West left Harvard and returned to Princeton after Mr. Summers publicly called his rap album “an embarrassment” and questioned his commitment to classroom instruction.
Mr. West is part of a segment on the far left of the Democratic Party that is displeased that Mr. Obama has hired many former Clinton administration officials.
“My critique of Summers is the same as my critique of Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and [Obama adviser] Jason Furman. They’re all deregulators who helped contribute to the catastrophe,” Mr. West told an interviewer for the Web site NewsBlaze.com earlier this month.
“And now, all of a sudden, they’re supposed to come to the rescue?”
Mr. Summers declined to be interviewed for this article, but he spoke earlier this fall about his overall philosophy, which will mark a significant departure from the Bush administration’s sometimes-doctrinaire belief in free markets.