As Treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers was famous for wolfing down a bag of Cheetos and polishing them off with a can of Diet Coke. The tip-off was the patina of orange dust on his suit.
Outward appearances can be deceiving when it comes to Summers, a lauded economist who became president of Harvard University, only to resign after some faculty members accused him of harboring sexist thoughts.
On Monday, Summers returned to the public spotlight when President-elect Barack Obama named him director of the National Economic Council. It is charged with formulating, coordinating and implementing the president's economic policies across the Cabinet agencies.
"With respect to both our current financial crisis, and other pressing economic issues of our time, his thinking, writing and speaking have set the terms of the debate," Obama said of Summers in announcing the appointment. "I am glad he will be by my side."
Gene Sperling, who served as President Bill Clinton's NEC director while Summers was undersecretary and secretary of the Treasury, said he is relieved that Obama has found a spot on the economic team for his former colleague.
"In such an unprecedented and complex economic and financial crisis, I think most of us — and, most importantly, Barack Obama — think he's just an essential person, an essential mind to have in the inner economic circle," said Sperling.
"He is able to bring his economic acumen to an amazing breadth of issues. He will be able to help contribute to everything, from the exact formulation of the stimulus plan to contributing in the design of tax, Social Security and energy policy," Sperling said.
Summers, 53, is the son of Ivy League economists. He enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 16 and, at age 28, became one of Harvard's youngest-ever tenured professors. He is the nephew of two Nobel laureates in economics, Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow.
His resume includes a series of stints in public service, on the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan, as chief economist for the World Bank and in the Treasury Department both under and then succeeding former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
After serving as secretary himself, Summers returned to academia as president of Harvard. He was credited with making the university more accessible to low-income applicants by eliminating tuition loans for families earning under $60,000, and with encouraging expansion of scientific research, particularly in stem cells.
Yet his five-year tenure also was marked by turmoil, especially after he told an academic conference in January 2005 there may be more men than women in high-end science and engineering positions because of "innate differences" between the sexes. While some professors and many students supported him, Summers ended up resigning a year later following a faculty no-confidence vote.
Summers ended up taking a yearlong sabbatical before returning to Harvard as an economics professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Now he is returning to a sub-Cabinet job after once serving as a Cabinet secretary.
Members of Congress began seeking out Summers as they considered economic stimulus proposals to help jump-start the struggling economy.
Summers first proposed the idea of an economic stimulus package in a November 2007 column in the Financial Times, in which he warned of an impending "U.S. recession that slows growth significantly on a global basis."
In a speech at the Brookings Institution he said the stimuli must be "timely, targeted and temporary," which has become somewhat of a catch phrase for Democrats.
Congress ended up approving a stimulus package and now Obama says a second one will be the focal point of his economic policy once he — and Summers — begin their new jobs in January.
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