Last year, as the gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression shook the banking system, Ben Bernanke seemed nearly as beleaguered as the institutions themselves.
The Federal Reserve chief had initially underestimated the crisis — and then seemed to inject new risk by unleashing breathtaking sums of money to fight it. Now, a strengthening economy is raising Bernanke's standing just as President Barack Obama must decide whether to reappoint him.
His supporters say Bernanke, 55, a scholar of the Great Depression, has the knowledge and ability to guide a sustainable recovery without igniting inflation. And they argue that without his bold interventions, the global financial crisis could have been much worse.
"He has risen to the occasion admirably after what you might argue was a slow start," says Alan Blinder, a Princeton professor who was Fed vice chairman in the mid-1990s. "His performance merits reappointment."
Bernanke, having just wrapped up the Fed's annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., remains under pressure to help speed a recovery. Joblessness, now at 9.4 percent, is expected to hit double digits this year. Yet his riskiest task is to decide when and how to unwind the Fed's emergency rescue programs without endangering the economy.
His critics see failures in Bernanke's performance. They say he overplayed his hand by swelling the Fed's balance sheet to nearly $2 trillion, a once-unthinkable threshold.
They argue that the success of the emergency rescue programs has been inconsistent. And they blame Bernanke for politicizing the Fed: They point, for example, to his role in deciding which banks would benefit from taxpayer-funded bailouts and which would not.
"His handling of the crisis has put the Fed in an awkward political position," says William Poole, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, who doesn't think Bernanke should be reappointed.
Other decisions, too, should have been left to Congress, says Poole, who retired in 2008 after 10 years at the regional Fed bank.
Regardless of the criticism and Obama's verdict, Bernanke will go down as a monumental figure, for better or worse, in the history of the Federal Reserve. Which is ironic. When Bernanke became chairman in February 2006, after Alan Greenspan's 18-year tenure, he tried to tilt the spotlight away from himself, preferring to elevate the agency itself.
The financial crisis demonstrated Bernanke's ability to build consensus at the Fed and to engineer creative solutions not normally in the agency's playbook, said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics Inc.
"Those are huge pluses," Sinai said.
While many leaders on Capitol Hill and Wall Street credit Bernanke for the unconventional thinking that defined his response to the financial crisis last fall, few said so back then. For months, the Fed chief came under intense criticism as he worked with the Treasury Department to bail out banks and pump trillions into the financial system to try to ease credit clogs.
Even before the crisis intensified last fall, the Fed took the historic step of letting investment firms draw low-cost emergency loans from the central bank -- a privilege long allowed only for commercial banks. After a run on Bear Stearns pushed it to the edge of bankruptcy, the Fed and the Treasury nudged what was the nation's fifth-largest investment bank into a takeover by JPMorgan Chase .
And to revive the economy, the Fed has deployed radical new tools. This year, it rolled out a $1.75 trillion program to buy government debt and mortgage-backed securities and debt from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac . The goal is to lower rates on mortgages and other consumer debt.
Mortgage rates did ease. But many feared the Fed's buying of government debt made it appear to be printing money to narrow a bulging federal budget gap.
"What I learned from this is that when you're in a situation like this — a perfect storm — sometimes you've got to do something a little bit outside the box, a little more aggressive," Bernanke said last month at a town-hall style meeting in Kansas City, Mo.
Even his supporters concede Bernanke was among many regulators who failed to detect early hints of the housing and mortgage collapse. Yet once the credit crisis erupted in the summer of 2007, "Mr. Bernanke engineered a U-turn in Fed policy that prevented the crisis from turning into a near depression," Nouriel Roubini, a New York University economics professor and former Bernanke critic, wrote recently in support of his reappointment.
Bernanke's advocates point to two steps that they say were especially critical in managing the crisis.
— In January 2008, Bernanke started pushing through super-sized rate reductions to prop up the ailing economy.
— Early last fall, after the Fed and Treasury stood by as Lehman Brothers collapsed, Bernanke rolled out programs to spur lending and stabilize financial markets.
Some who think Bernanke went too far in supporting bailouts and low-cost loans for big banks argue he shouldn't be reappointed.
The use of a $700 billion taxpayer-financed fund to bail out big institutions, such as insurer American International Group Inc., angered many Americans. Critics fear that financial firms deemed too big to fail now have no incentive to curb risk taking.
"Just the fact that (the Fed) can issue a lot of loans and special privileges to banks and corporations — that's political," huffs Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Bernanke also failed to detect early on the scope of potential damage from high-risk mortgages. In June 2007, he declared that troubles in the subprime mortgage market were "unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system."
Still, sentiments on Capitol Hill suggest his chances of reappointment have risen. "We all look forward to continuing to partner with you," Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who has been critical of the Fed, told Bernanke last month.
Lawrence Summers, a senior Obama adviser, is often mentioned as an alternative choice. Other contenders include Janet Yellen, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Christina Romer, a top Obama economic adviser; Roger Ferguson, the former No. 2 Fed official; and Princeton's Blinder.
For now, Bernanke benefits from the role of incumbent. He has taken the unusual step for a Fed chief of fielding questions in a PBS town-hall style meeting and on CBS' "60 Minutes."
To prevent another crisis, Bernanke has said Congress should create a way to safely wind down a big financial institution. And he think "too big to fail" institutions should be subject to stricter regulation.
Bernanke contends that when the crisis erupted, he couldn't play cautiously, regardless of criticism. Instead, he swung for the fences.
The enormous bailouts were necessary to avert financial and economic ruin, he said, because the rescued companies were linked to the entire global economy.
As he put it last month, "I was not going to be the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over the second Great Depression."