There are three political groupings that get Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke wrong: the left, the right and the center.

Bernanke will soon finish 10 years in the chairmanship of the Fed and will almost certainly be replaced, in part because of the extent to which the left and the right have joined in attacking him, and the center’s failure to defend him.

His strong commitment to the basic framework of our capitalist society, while advocating policies that reflect the fact that even the most thriving private sector will leave many people vulnerable to economic distress has been an important part of his work.

Unfortunately, in substantial part reflecting the angry mood of the public in recent years towards government in general, and a strong tendency on the press to follow the maxim that good news is no news, Chairman Bernanke has been a target of a wide range of unfair criticism.

The anger from liberals against Benanke is misplaced. For much of our recent history, the Federal Reserve has been the embodiment of policies that many on the left felt were insensitive to social concerns. Unfortunately, this has led many on the left to lock in to reflexive anti-Fed positions, even though Bernanke’s policy actions for the past two years have generally been very much what liberals should want, especially since he is pursuing them in the face of conservative opposition.

The anger — verging on fury — expressed by many on the right toward Bernanke is particularly strange when you remember that he was the individual whom George W. Bush most relied on in dealing with the economy.

President Bush appointed Bernanke to office three times — as the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisors, as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and then as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Bernanke dominated economic policy in the latter years of the Bush administration, and Paulson and Bernanke were the voices of the Bush administration in dealing with the financial crisis.

(Part of the problem with contemporary Republican denunciation of Bernanke is the dislike of being reminded that every public policy that can be called a bailout undertaken by the American government was an initiative of President Bush.)

An example of the evolution of the Republican Party in this regard comes from former Rep. Ron Paul.

For years when the Republicans controlled the House, Paul was passed over by the Republican leadership for the subcommittee chairmanship to which he was entitled by seniority on the House Financial Services Committee, because he was deemed unsound with regard to the Federal Reserve.

By his last term, Paul was not only the Republican Subcommittee Chairman in charge of the Federal Reserve, he was heavily influencing Republican policy on the subject.

The failure of people on the left to express support for Bernanke is understandable, but self-defeating. Much of the right wing’s adamant dislike of the Fed is based on a range of feelings — from opposition to any government action to improve the economy, all the way to conspiracy theories about the international cabal that is coming for their guns.

But there is a rational basis on which conservatives should be opposing Bernanke: he has for more than four years been as vigorous, both in action and in speech, as anyone in American government on the need to reduce unemployment.

Bernanke’s grave fault in their eyes is that he takes seriously the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate. Federal law gives our Federal Reserve System — unlike most central banks — the duty both of maintaining price stability and reducing unemployment. For most conservatives any possible tension between these two, can be remedied by abolishing the unemployment part of the mandate. And before 2007, that requirement was often ignored and minimalized at best.

But Bernanke has taken this obligation seriously.

Which brings me to the center. One of the saddest facts of contemporary American politics has been the unwillingness of those who know better to defend the Federal Reserve against the mindless attacks of the right.

The financial reforms we adopted in 2010, and the rhetoric that was used by President Obama as we debated this, so offended the leaders in the financial community that they are prepared to be wholly supportive of the tea party-controlled Republican House caucus to the point where they are muted in their defense of those Federal Reserve policies which they support.

What will be important in the confirmation fight that will come next year over his successor is the guaranteed effort by tea party senators and their allies to block the confirmation of anyone who does not repudiate Bernanke’s commitment to concern for both parts of the Fed’s governing statute — price stability and employment.

I hope, by then, liberals will understand the stake that we have in seeing that a new chairman is confirmed with that same commitment. And I hope as well, with less expectation of success, that the mainstream conservative leaders of the financial community will gain the courage to defend the actions of the Federal Reserve from which they have benefited, and which they understand to be in the national interest, even though this will mean confronting some of their allies on the right.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.


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