NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- During the worst years of the Bush Administration, Stephen Colbert would ask the same question of every liberal guest. "George W. Bush. Great president or greatest president?"
It always got a laugh.
The fact is that a Federal Reserve chairman, like a president, is measured by the times. Elect Abraham Lincoln in the 1920s and you might get Calvin Coolidge.
Ben Bernanke came to the Federal Reserve in a Coolidge-like era but was forced, once in office, to become the Fed's Lincoln, facing down the gravest economic crisis the U.S. had faced since the Great Depression.
Fortunately for us, his academic life had told him what to do.
He is called "Helicopter Ben" because he really believes, like the great monetarist Milton Friedman, that deflation is the great enemy in a downturn, and that it can be prevented if enough new money is pumped into the economy.
Before becoming Fed chair in February 2006, Bernanke was best known as a student of the Great Depression, publishing an important paper on it in 1994, a book of essays on it in 2004 and delivering a lecture shortly that same year, which concluded with these words:
By allowing persistent declines in the money supply and in the price level, the Federal Reserve of the late 1920s and 1930s greatly destabilized the U.S. economy and, through the workings of the gold standard, the economies of many other nations as well.
When the crisis hit, Bernanke applied these lessons. But the head of the Fed is a bank regulator. He can't throw money out of helicopters onto ordinary people. Government spending is a function of fiscal policy, controlled by the President and the Congress.