I went to see Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner be interviewed by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham today at the National Press Club. The back story is that after 76 years, Newsweek is relaunching itself. The new issue is out today and the magazine is smaller and more “engaged,” though it’s also more expensive. Today’s interview was part of their rebranding campaign.
The folks at Clusterstock were invited and they generously passed their invitation onto me. This was an odd day to see the Treasury secretary be interviewed since the Washington Post ran a story this morning on the sad state of affairs at the department. The article’s message was clear: Geithner is a weak manager and the White House has the whole department on a tight leash.
Government officials, inside the Treasury and out, say the unresolved issues are piling up in part because of vacancies in the department’s top ranks. But some of the officials also cite the Treasury’s ad-hoc management, which is dominated by a small band of Geithner’s counselors who coordinate rescue initiatives but lack formal authority to make decisions. Heavy involvement by the White House in Treasury affairs has further muddied the picture of who is responsible for key issues, the officials add.
To his credit, Meacham led off by mentioning the article and asked Geithner about it. This turns to problem I have with Geithner—he seems to have the soul of a bureaucrat. He speaks too quickly and he avoids the heart of nearly every question.
This is, of course, what people in power are paid to do. But when someone as artful as Obama does it, you feel that the question has been answered. With Geithner, you simply feel like he’s evading you and he has contempt for the question. On top of that, he seems so damn ineffectual. Once you see the package at work, it doesn’t inspire much confidence. Especially when you compare him with his boss, the gap is downright embarrassing.
So what was his answer? He garbled on about more time, things were progressing nicely, yadda yadda yadda and the administration was “ahead of the curve.” You just knew that phrase was coming. Still, he never addressed the issue at hand which is him—and ironically, that answers the question.
When asked about the economy, Geithner said that things were stabilizing but there’s still a lot of pain out there. (Gee, thanks for that, Tim.) When asked about the efficacy of the Fed, he said that it’s performed “very well over time,” but didn’t comment more about the current Fed. Bernanke’s term as Fed Chair expires next year.
The closest Geithner came to being emphatic was we he reiterated the administration’s view that something had to be done quickly and be done big, so the issue of the debt and deficit weren’t top priorities. I would have like to see Meacham press him further about how the stimulus us being spent, but no such luck.
Meacham asked Geithner how much money he makes as Treasury secretary. Geither said that he’s generously compensated and that he makes under $200,000. Ugh. Here’s a question that can be answered with a specific number and its public information, yet even here, Geithner still bobs. Fortunately, he went on to say that he doesn’t favour compensation caps for bankers. Instead, he supports altering scope of incentives, but still he was vague on that point outside of the usual boiler plate like “say on pay.”
Meacham threw a bit of a curveball by mentioning critics to the left of the administration, specifically Paul Krugman, and the charge that they’re too soft on bankers. Geithner completely dodged the whole thing.
Perhaps the most illuminating part was when Meacham turned to the issue of California and states in general. Geithner said they’re in close consultation with the states. When Meacham pressed him about a federal bailout, Geithner said that he wouldn’t use the words “federal” or “bailout,” and repeated that he was in close consultation with the states. I’m not sure what to take from that.
Meacham concluded by asking Geithner about being named one of “Barack’s Beauties” by People. At this point the Treasury Secretary simply blushed. Meacham made some joke about Alexander Hamilton probably never blushed, and Geithner being in “close consultation” with People.
All in all, I would rather have seen Geithner (or anyone) interview Meacham. In addition to being a thoughtful observer of religion in America, he recently won the Pultizer Prize for American Bear, his book on Andrew Jackson. Plus, he’s in the middle of trying to revamp one of the country’s oldest and most influential news magazines.
(This post also appears at CrossingWallStreet)