Why Does Obama Need Turbo Tim?


When the president ducks out of a star-studded White House party with the Treasury secretary's wife, The New York Times concludes that the Treasury secretary gets to keep his job. 

Jackie Calmes tries to get the official story of Tim Geithner's bewildering durability, with partial success: 

The question for outsiders as varied as Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats is why Mr. Obama would be so insistent that Mr. Geithner stay. As Treasury secretary, he was the highest-ranking member of a team that underestimated the depth of the downturn, and he has managed both to anger Wall Street firms and to be a target of criticism at Occupy Wall Street rallies.

For Mr. Obama, however, Mr. Geithner has emerged as the indispensable economic adviser who has outlasted every other member of the original inner circle and whose successes easily outweigh his missteps. 

So what's to like in a 9 percent unemployment rate, a weakening dollar, record deficits, plummeting tax collections, and persistent economic stagnation that either resists or is fueled by trillions of dollars in Keynesian stimulus? Calmes advances several theories: 

Europe's troubles, perhaps more than anything, highlight what Mr. Obama likes about Mr. Geithner, because they help show how the effects of the financial crisis could have been worse in this country.

After a rocky first few weeks in the job, Mr. Geithner managed to stabilize the country's troubled banks by forcing them to own up to their problems and seek additional funds from both the government and the private sector. The Treasury has even earned a profit for taxpayers on the still-reviled bank bailout program.

European leaders — defying repeated advice from Mr. Geithner, by phone and in five trips so far this year — have taken a much less aggressive approach, applying one Band-Aid after another to address their mounting debts and ailing banks, only to discover they must do more.

The claim that the Treasury "earned a profit on the…bank bailout program" is only true with heavy manipulation of the definitions of "bank," "failing," "repaid" and other basic English vocabulary – and it requires that you ignore the Obama Administration's use of TARP funds for the auto bailout, an expenditure that is unlikely to be repaid at all. 

Calmes' second explanation is that everybody else was doing it: 

Officials say that Mr. Obama does not blame Mr. Geithner either for the persistent housing problems or for the administration's miscalculations of the slump. Many underestimated the crisis, they note, and Congressional Republicans' opposition has limited the administration's options. 

Another theory: Geithner still has whipping boy value: 

"To the extent people aren't happy, you'd rather have the secretary of Treasury be the spear-catcher instead of the president himself," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. "And if Geithner were a liability, they'd have let him go when he wanted to go."

This last theory sounds most convincing. Every cabinet official eventually becomes meat the president throws out to keep his pursuers occupied. The U.S. economy since Barack Obama took office has been a catastrophe to which the Hoovervilles of the Occupy movement bear grime-tattooed witness. I can't say I think much of the tactic of holding Geithner's sacrifice in reserve to soothe the public's wrath in 2012, but at least it's a tactic. 

Keep in mind that the Treasury Department runs the Federal Financing Bank, the corporate welfare office in charge of doling out subsidies for politically favored companies. The FFB's chief finance officer, Gary Burner, had to testify on Solyndra a while back.  I make no predictions, but when Geithner's sacrifice does come, it may take the form of having Turbo Tim take a fall over Solyndra, should Energy Secretary Steven Chu's head prove insufficient. 

That Geithner appears to have been one of the few members of the president's inner circle who argued against Obama's green-loan-guarantee program would make the sacrifice all the more poignant – as it was when Colin Powell threw away his honor and his "Powell Doctrine" for the sake of the Iraq invasion. 

In any event, I say again that it's always a good day to fire Geithner:

[S]uccessful presidents replace Treasury Secretaries all the time. And Obama needs to send a feel-your-pain signal to Americans. This is a nearly cost-free way to repudiate a failed Keynesian policy and burnish the reputation for non-ideological pragmatism Obama covets.