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The Geithner Problem

Eugene Robinson
Contributor
EUGENE ROBINSON uses his twice-weekly column in The Washington Post to pick American society apart and then put it back together again in unexpected, and revelatory, new ways. To do this job of demolition and…
Eugene Robinson

President Obama’s claim that Timothy Geithner faces a more daunting set of challenges than any treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Geithner may indeed be the hardest-working man in Washington. But in order to survive, let alone succeed, he’s going to have to make a more convincing case that he’s part of the solution and not part of the problem.

The case of the appalling AIG bonuses — I was going to call them outrageous, but politicians and pundits have exhausted the nation’s supply of outrage since the payments were revealed — is just the latest situation to raise the inconvenient problem-versus-solution question about Geithner. Why didn’t he know about the bonuses earlier? And when he did get clued in, why didn’t he do anything to head off what was obviously going to be a distracting and perhaps damaging controversy?

A simpler way of asking the Geithner question is: Does he get it?

Does he understand the profound sense of betrayal that so many Americans feel as we learn that the supposed wizards of finance, the Masters of the Universe who shower themselves with unimaginable wealth, were safeguarding our economic well-being with the diligence and sobriety of a drunken high-roller at a craps table in Vegas at 4 a.m.? Does he understand that the crisis is not just an economic watershed but a cultural one as well, and that what once was deemed perfectly acceptable behavior on Wall Street is now seen as reprehensible? Does he understand that outside of Lower Manhattan, the definition of a “retention bonus” is being spared from the latest round of layoffs?

Geithner’s troubles began shortly after he was nominated for the Cabinet, when it was disclosed that he had failed to pay $34,000 in federal taxes between 2001 and 2004. It’s reasonable to expect the secretary of the treasury to have a record of faithfully paying his own taxes, and Geithner’s excuse — that he had used the computer software TurboTax to prepare his returns — didn’t sound likely to erase the scowl from an IRS auditor’s face. But Obama pushed hard for the nomination and the Senate went along, largely because Geithner was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and had been deeply involved from the beginning in the effort to contain the financial meltdown. He was one of the few people who truly understood how and why things were falling apart.

One thing Geithner doesn’t seem to understand, though, is how and why appearances matter. There has been a steady flow of news indicating that Wall Street doesn’t realize that the Era of Excess is over, the latest coming Thursday with a Bloomberg News report that the CEO of troubled Citigroup, Vikram Pandit, plans to spend about $10 million redecorating the firm’s executive offices. I know that the firm has made other economies and that Pandit is working for $1 a year. I just think that after accepting $45 billion in bailout money, I’d cancel any improvement project that couldn’t be accomplished with a trip to Home Depot.

Obama’s job would be much easier if Geithner was more effective at communicating with the public about what happened to the economy and what the administration is doing to fix it. As things stand, Obama has to do all the explaining himself. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect Geithner to be both a financial whiz and a silver-tongued orator. He does speak the language of Wall Street, though, and one of the nonnegotiable requirements in his job description should be to make the men and women who run our financial institutions understand that their behavior has to change.

The basic strategy for handling the crisis, begun under the Bush administration and continued by Obama, is to hook up a fire hose to the treasury and shower irresponsible and greedy financial institutions with money until the fire is put out. In political terms, to put it mildly, this is a hard sell. It becomes an impossible sell when Wall Street displays not gratitude but arrogance, reminding us how emotionally satisfying it would be — if ultimately counterproductive and even disastrous — to stand back and let the fire burn.

The vast amount of money poured into Wall Street has bought American taxpayers the right to say that business-as-usual practices such as the AIG bonuses are over. Geithner needs to deliver this message. It he can’t or won’t, Obama should find somebody who can and will.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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