Tim Geithner Faces Challenges, Critics

The Treasury Secretary's economic leadership is increasingly coming under fire.

March 10, 2009— -- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner assuredly knew he had his work cut out for him when he assumed his position during these grave economic times, particularly after a testy confirmation process. But nearly six weeks into the job, critics from both parties are growing increasingly worried that his stock has dropped.

The former New York Federal Reserve president is an early riser. He arrives at the Treasury Department at 5:30 a.m. to work out at the gym, and is at his desk by 6:30. During the day, he can be seen at the White House with his boss, President Obama, and at Capitol Hill testifying before lawmakers.

But even some in his party have panned Geithner for not providing enough leadership at a time when unemployment is rising and the recession is worsening.

"The secretary has to lead, and he has to lead now, as soon as possible," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. "They've [the Treasury] shared with people, sort of, how they're moving. ... I think they're going to, hopefully, move somewhere in the near term, and I urge them to do so. But I think they deserve the leeway to be able to make that judgment."

Last night, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a member of the Joint Economic Committee, said that Geithner made a mistake in not describing more details when he announced the administration's financial stability plan several weeks ago.

"The guy is extremely bright, but the question is not if he's bright -- it's if he has the political sense to lead us out of this mess," Cummings said. "One of the biggest mistakes he made was coming out initially with that speech. He was seen as the golden boy ... and then for him to come out, with everyone on the edge of their seats waiting for a specific plan and all we got were some 'rah rahs' and 'go team' -- that didn't sit too well."

To be sure, becoming Treasury secretary at a time of economic crisis is a thankless job, and Geithner's predecessor, fellow Dartmouth alumnus Henry Paulson, was also resoundingly criticized. Geithner, former New York Federal Reserve president, is praised for his even temperament, intelligence and work ethic.

Geithner's supporters argue that in five weeks on the job, he's accomplished a great deal -- the financial stability plan, the housing plan, the auto task force, restructuring plans with Citigroup and AIG, and setting new limits on executive compensation.

"No one else is positioned as he is now to help lead the country," said Scott Talbott of the Financial Services Roundtable. "He has a slow steady hand. He's not making knee-jerk reactions and overreacting."

But at a time when the nation needs economic reassurance and leadership, the knives sometimes seem out for Geithner. He's come under heat for his thin speech on how to fix the banking crisis, for not winning the confidence of the fledgling markets and for not filling vacancies at Treasury -- the department still has a number of job openings that need to be filled, as evidenced by the one picture of Geithner that hangs at the entrance of the department.

Obama's former rival, John McCain, R-Ariz., who was not particularly praised for having enunciated a coherent ecomomic vision during his presidential campaign, chimed in his views to CNBC, saying that what the administration and Treasury have been doing so far has not succeeded and is only worsening the situation.

"I think the message is muddled, and I don't think there's certainty, and I don't think there are specifics," McCain said. "But I do agree that they should be given more time."

Even "Saturday Night Live" has jumped on the bandwagon, a sign that concerns about the Treasury secretary have entered the popular culture (you don't see many Larry Summers or Christie Romer imitations).

In a fake address to the nation, comedian Will Arnett, playing Geithner, proposed setting aside $420 billion: "This $420 billion will be placed in a special fund and goes to the first individual that comes up with a workable plan to solve the banking crisis."

Geithner, the Golden Boy?

When his name was leaked as the Treasury secretary nominee last November, the Dow Jones industrial average soared almost 500 points. Geithner had earned considerable respect from politicians and CEOs alike on Wall Street, and he worked closely with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. The registered independent was not only popular on Wall Street, he was also well respected by the Obama team for thinking outside the box.

But his popularity has deflated since then in many circles.

"The image that comes across is that he is still getting his feet wet," said Sean Egan of Egan-Jones Ratings Company. "He doesn't have a complete understanding of what the problems are or how to address them."

Even supporters like billionaire investor Warren Buffett are voicing concern over the economic message coming from the government writ large, including Congress and the administration.

"The message has to be very, very clear as to what government will be doing, and I think we've had -- and it's the nature of the political process somewhat -- but we've had muddled messages and the American public does not know," Buffet said on CNBC. "They feel they don't know what's going on, and their reaction then is to absolutely pull back."

It remains to be seen what legacy Geithner will leave, but for now he has to focus on finding fixes for the economy and hiring more employees. The staffing situation looks to be improving. Three assistant Treasury Secretary nominees were named Sunday and one, H. Rodgin Cohen, a partner in the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, who served as counsel to just about every major player on Wall Street, is likely to be officially nominated for deputy Treasure secretary this week.