March 23rd, 2009
12:17 PM ET
11 years ago

Yellin: Geithner faces a tough room

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner faced a tough room Monday morning.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner faced a tough room Monday morning.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Slouching alone at the head table before a room of business reporters, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner looked like an overgrown prep school student facing the expulsion board after violating the honors code. It wasn't what he said, but his demeanor as he said it. Slouching, cautious, gazing out from deep-set eyes - he seemed to be shrink from the room. And the room was skeptical.

When the Secretary calmly asserted taxpayers would get a fair shake in the deal because the funds in question "are managed by professionals who know how to do this for a living" - one reporter could be heard sighing "oh, great." The wariness was mutual. Asked whether he thought this plan would play well outside Washington, Geithner offered a wry smile. "I'm confident that you and your colleagues will do a good job of getting the word out," he replied.

Geithner's presentation lasted just over 35 minutes, the bulk of that time answering reporter’s questions. Most along the lines of – why do you think this will work. He sat at a wooden desk with an unopened bottle of Dasani water and an untouched glass to his left, an American flag behind him, and a thin microphone in front. For anyone who has considered getting botox, Geithner would be an object of intense jealousy:his forehead almost never moved. His look was solitary and small. Slumped in a chair, lost in a suit with pants that seemed to swallow him, he used his large hands: sweeping out wide as he explained that his confidence in the plan, then folding into a steeple as he was asked for more specifics.

To a first-time observer, there are similarities between Geithner and President Obama. Like the president, he is exceedingly lean and lanky; the look, disciplined. Like the President, his calm and caution gave him an air of seeming detachment from his subject and the people questioning him. He doesn't react, he reflects. He takes time with his explanations; his attitude toward his audience: patience. But lacking the President's ease and amused charm, the steadiness doesn't seem Zen. It gives him the air of an exceedingly professional scientist: if this experiment doesn't work out, it will provide fascinating insight for the next experiment.

Too bad for the lab rats? Folks who know Geithner say that's a wildly a unfair assessment: that he's a deeply empathetic man who cares about the little guy. It's not his fault that his demeanor doesn't reflect that.

The business reporters in the room grilled him endlessly about loan rates and investment enticements and how this plan would be structured. It wasn't until the very end questions that he was asked how this will play “outside Washington” and whether this is skewed against the taxpayers. Or whether he worries about Congress and their rage-fighting measure to tax bonuses. To both he betrayed no emotion. "It's very important we make sure taxpayer money is not used to reward people who should not be rewarded," he said, sounding for the first time like a talking points politician. At one point he did acknowledge there is “deep anger and outrage" in the nation. But, he explained, "we need to balance that against the objective" - which is to get rich people to buy the things the banks don’t want, and government won’t take. "I'm confident we can get that balance right," he smiled.

The most revealing insight came when the Treasury Secretary explained, “The challenge is that after a period of too much risk, right now there isn’t enough risk taking,” he explained, “We now need to encourage investors to take risks.” In other words, we want to unleash a little of the gambling instinct that got us here in the first place. Put another way - Wall Street is holding the rest of the economy hostage. It’s all because of these toxic assets.

He wants hedge funds and private equity firms to buy those assets and free the economy. But remember, these would be the same crazy risk-takers who tanked our economy by gambling too big and then losing in the first place. But Geithner has faith in them, the problem is they’re feeling skittish; the hedge funds etc were burned by their bad bets, and now they’re terrified of parting with their money. So they won't buy the toxic assets without big protections. His idea: let the government coax them into investing in these toxic assets by minimizing the chance that they'll lose big, and maximizing the chance they'll profit it all goes right. They're trying to get Wall Street's gamblers only a little bit drunk so they'll dive into the market again.

But what if it all runs amok? Will they get ridiculously rich off the taxpayers or will the taxpayers lose big. Uh, time will tell?

And it was over. He thanked the room. And then a press secretary stepped forward – a man I'm told came with Geithner from the New York Federal Reserve. He looked out at the room of reporters with their wireless enabled laptops and blackberries and announced "We're going to impose an embargo," he said - that's press lingo for "you're not allowed to share this info publicly till we say so." Only he said it more than an hour too late. Even before the secretary walked into the room, everyone had been sending their newsrooms snippets of his comments and details of the plan listed in thick packets outlining the new plan. The information was already out. Can they be this unclear about how the Washington press works? Not a good sign.

On the way out of Treasury - where the ceilings are appear to be painted gold - a huddle of reporters stood in front of a "staff" board featuring pictures of the officers at the department: seven in all, including several holdovers from the Bush administration. At least Geithner isn't entirely alone.

Filed under: Tim Geithner
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Mississippi Mike

    Obama has appointed 1 out of the 18 slots to be appointed at the Treasury. That appointee is Mr. Geithner. Is Obama so incompetent that he can't staff up the organization that supports his number one priority, the economy? Or is he setting Geithner up to fail so he can bring in a team of radicals who will force absolutely lousy policy on us in the name of fixing Geithner's problems?

    Obama's administration has done so poorly appointing people to Treasury posts it's either incompetence or part of the plan. Take your pick.

    March 23, 2009 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  2. Deborah Cornwall

    Someone needs to give Tim Geithner some public speaking training so he can develop a persona that stimulates more confidence. We're having a crisis of confidence in the markets right now, and we need our senior financial gurus to come forward with a confidence-inspiring presence. If he's a backroom guy who knows his stuff and is doing good things, then perhaps the microphone is the last place we should make him go.

    March 23, 2009 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  3. Capt. Smash

    No one on this board his a clue whats going on. The market is up more than 300 points, Geithner's plan is working CITI Bank is up more than 200% from March 9th lows. The government owns 40% of this Bank. Tim Geithner's plan is working all of you should not discount Obama's economic team these guys are good, real good!

    So please stop bashing Geithner, he knows what he is doing this was the worse mess than any of you can understand.

    March 23, 2009 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  4. no corporate politics

    The Obama administration has figured out what caused some of the trouble we are in. And part of the solution is to let the bad investers do the SAME thing all over again.

    And by the way, he ran on "Change". I am sure some have surely forgotten this.

    That's my tax dollars you are playing with, preppy guys!

    March 23, 2009 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  5. Ian Rennie

    "It wasn't what he said, but his demeanor as he said it. Slouching, cautious, gazing out from deep-set eyes — he seemed to be shrink from the room."

    I don't care about his body language, I care about his ideas. Can we focus on what is actually being said and done instead of things we think we can see from facial tics, please?

    March 23, 2009 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  6. Pee Wee

    And, if the investor is lucky enough to win, they'll tax the hell out of him to pay for some pie in the sky government agenda item. Or, tell him how much he's allowed to make and not be able to pay his employees, unless, of course, it's less than 250K.

    March 23, 2009 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  7. beevee

    Mr. Geithner is a brilliant economist but may not have the political and oratorial skills. I think he envisions the economic crisis better than any politician does and has been careful, may be a bit slow, in coming with a workable solution. Emotions aside, if any one has a little bit of brain they will give him time and space to come up with a plan. There is no point in crticizing him all the time. This includes CNN's so called financial experts who have degrees in religious studies.

    March 23, 2009 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  8. alvino

    Since clueless Eric Cantor is critical of the plan, I know we are moving in the right direction.

    March 23, 2009 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  9. Dave NYC

    This plan is brilliant – it thread's the eye of the needle and will take A LOT of work. But if done right, it is exactly the kind of brilliant solution we need more of.

    Our economic problems are extremely complex and difficult to solve – we have fallen so far in the last 8 years, it may take another decade before we get everything we lost back. Let's hope we don't put another Republican in office once its all over, so we can stop repeating the same mistakes.

    March 23, 2009 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  10. S Callahan

    So much for the embargo.......

    One has to hope they know what they are doing....whimsical thinking can not be a part of this right now......

    March 23, 2009 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  11. Bruce W. Madison, AL

    We are wasting our time with this bailout situation. AIG, Citibank, Bank of America and the entire Wall Street organization (NYSE) should roll over and die. Let these corporations die as violent a financial death as possible. If this country goes into a depression so be it. Remember out of the ashes the phoneix rose. In additon, GM, FORD, and Crysler should go under. Once all this financial deadwood is removed, REBUILD. As a taxpayer, we the public should ask for our 80% back I do not get a multi million bonus, but I will take my share from this mess. "I WANT A REFUND"!

    March 23, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  12. proudliberal-independent

    i support the President AND his team. 2 months is not enough time to start criticizing.

    March 23, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  13. Laverne

    Hang in there Geithner, you have a huge mess on your hand and despite what the republicans say, YOUR JOB IS SAFE!

    March 23, 2009 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  14. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    Good job Tim. The makrkets are shoing exactly how good the plan is. The DOW is up 4%.

    March 23, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  15. Ray Fisher

    America and the world only hope this guy is as good as advertised. We haven't the time nor resources for do-overs so everything must work the first time. The key factor will be the new regulations, if they stop creating worthless paper, we have a chance, if the Wall Street Sharks prevail with their creative financing schemes, we are lost!!! History will determine is Geithner will be a hero or heel!!!

    March 23, 2009 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  16. J French

    O.K. Now lets pretend these reporters heard Tim Geithner 's presentation over a phone line or radio - no visual effects!! Why, there is absolutely no response to the content of the message. All comments are responding to visual effects. What a farce the news media has become. How about an intelligent evaluation of this plan?

    March 23, 2009 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  17. brandon

    I feel as though Geither has social anxiety when he is in front of a crowd of people and he is unable to articulate himself well. I dont doubt that he knows what he is doing he just does not have the charisma to sale it. Obame needs to help him out and articulate the plan for him. Not everyone is suppose to be in front of the camera and it is obvious that Geither is a behind the scenes guy.

    Just let the man do what he is does best.

    March 23, 2009 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  18. Other Jean

    Get off this guy's back. He shouldn't bare the brunt of all this ugly, bully-mood political game-playing.

    March 23, 2009 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  19. gerry in toronto

    Wall Street voted 300 points up tells me the plan's a winner. Yellin needs to get another job.

    Her pathetic attempt of slamming Geitner makes her look like a fool.

    March 23, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  20. RobK

    If the President was making cautious decisions, 2 months would not be enough time to levy criticism. But the Administration has or is planning to spend multiple trillions of dollars in a few months time. We can't afford to wait for 6 months to see if this works, which nobody, including the Administration, knows if it will do anything. Even if it does work, we will be years working our way out of this hole.

    March 23, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |