Politico’s Interesting Take on Down-and-Sort-of-Out Rubin

Politico takes a look today at Robert Rubin, declaring him “decidedly out of favor in the nation’s capital.”

There’s no breakthrough journalism here, and even in Washington, where reporters thrive on pronouncing who’s up and who’s down, the fact that Rubin falls into the latter category hardly counts as news.

But the piece is an interesting one. It manages to show just how down the former Treasury secretary is—while also making a convincing case that, despite that, he’s still got plenty of influence in the Obama administration.

There’s good timing on the story, which ran the same day that Rubin, Citigroup’s former interim chairman, and Chuck Prince, Citi’s ex-CEO, were getting grilled by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

At the same time, the who’s-up/down machine has been whirring about Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council and Rubin protégé, who, the chatter has it, may be on his way out.

But then, so was Rahm, as we recall.

National Journal seems to have got that ball rolling with some of those nasty details that tend to come out when a job change is in the works, or at least when someone hopes to make that happen. Among them: Summers was so grumpy when Obama named Ben Bernanke to a second term as Fed chairman (instead of tapping Summers, apparently) that he demanded some extra perks, including a game of golf with the president (which he got) and a car and driver (which he didn’t). The ball has been rolling along, with reports from Charlie Gasparino and The Atlantic. It’s the Washington buzz machine in action.

Against that backdrop, Politico focuses on what it calls Rubin’s “discreet kind of influence.”

Behind the scenes, Rubin still wields enormous influence in Barack Obama’s Washington, chatting regularly with a legion of former employees who dominate the ranks of the young administration’s policy team. He speaks regularly to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who once worked for Rubin at Treasury.

According to Geithner’s public calendar, the treasury secretary spoke or met with Rubin at least four times in the first six months of Geithner’s tenure. Three of those chats, including an hourlong session in Rubin’s New York office, came before President Obama released his Wall Street regulatory reform proposal in June 2009.

As the piece points out, there are reasons for Rubin and his disciples to keep his role under the radar.

The mere mention of Rubin’s name invokes cringes on the political left — where “Rubinomics” is derided as an approach that coddles Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.

The big bailout that Citi got doesn’t help the situation.

Indeed, Rubin is so down that now it’s notable when someone says something nice about him.

Rubin’s record, too, has been tarnished, to the point that it raised eyebrows inside the Obama administration when CFTC chief Gensler invoked Rubin’s name in a recent interview. “What’s so marvelous about Bob,” Gensler told The New York Times in March, is that “he fostered in people the ability to think. He wanted to hear differing ideas.”

That’s not something many others will say out loud. Gensler “was one of the few people willing to go on the record saying he likes Bob Rubin,” said the senior administration official. “But privately, there’s still a huge amount of respect for Rubin’s thinking.”

Rubin’s recent reputational problems made me look up a memorable 1998 profile of him that ran in The New York Times Magazine.

Get a load of how he was seen back then:

A few years ago it was Greenspan, maestro of the money supply, who was viewed as the recovery’s essential man. But of late it is Rubin. If he looks exhausted these days, it may be less from five and a half years of commuting between New York and Washington than from the strain of playing Atlas to the world economy — carrying a globe that constantly threatens to spin out of control.

I’ll admit that I remember that piece for a different passage, one about Rubin and a team of U.S. officials meeting at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington to figure out what to do about a looming crisis in Korea.

When Rubin finally spoke, he emphasized the limits of America’s influence. He wasn’t persuaded that sending more money would be a decisive enough step to restore the confidence of international creditors and investors, who had poured capital into Korea as if it were a fixed fight, and were now fleeing as if it had become radioactive. At the end of the dinner, after one of his regular measured indulgences — four scoops of cassis sorbet — Rubin postponed the decision.

Four scoops of sorbet! Cassis!

Anyway, it’s quite a trajectory, from being way up, to so far down that people don’t want to admit on the record that they like the guy.

And yet, as Politico tells it, the same person is still getting lots of face time with the people in charge.

Hmm. Let me see if I get this straight: So, he’s inside-up, outside-down?

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.