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On economic matters, Obama lacks a secretary of Selling It

Geithner & Co. may know policy, but they've proven less than adept at inspiring the public to accept tough medicine. Their most effective point man is in danger of being overused, one analyst says.

March 24, 2009|Peter Nicholas and Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — The first time Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner was sent out as point man to sell the Obama administration's financial rescue plan, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 382 points. And Geithner's subsequent efforts as a center-stage spokesman were less than resounding successes.

On Monday, the administration took a different approach. Geithner largely confined himself to conducting a pen-and-pad-only news conference that excluded TV and effectively reduced the secretary from point man to staff briefer. The Dow soared nearly 500 points.

Wall Street clearly liked the meaty details he laid out. But beyond the substance of the rescue plan, the administration's shift to a lower profile for Geithner reflected a worrisome fact: Aside from President Obama, the administration has yet to find a commanding figure who can carry economic policy messages and inspire confidence in White House prescriptions.

In assembling his economic team, the president gave first priority to technical skill and intellectual achievement. So far, none of his senior advisors has shown the extra ability to inspire as well -- both on Wall Street and Main Street.

Because the programs are complex, costly and politically unpopular, the dearth of administration officials who can dominate the stage is becoming a serious handicap.

"They're not good. They can't talk to normal people," said Ross Eisenbrey of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "They're not reassuring the public. And the psychology of consumer confidence is very important."

Chief White House economic advisor Lawrence H. Summers, a Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary, is widely admired for his grasp of global economics. Former UC Berkeley economist Christina Romer is a top expert on the Great Depression.

And Geithner headed the Federal Reserve Bank of New York after holding high-level government jobs involving the economy and finance.

Yet all have stumbled in recent public appearances on the economy.

"The ability to communicate with average people was not what these people were chosen for," said Alice M. Rivlin, budget director under President Clinton. "They were chosen for their understanding of the problem and their ability to think creatively about it and to work out solutions to what is admittedly a very complex issue."

Selling the president's economic plans "clearly has not been their forte," she said.

The Treasury Department's communications problems have been aggravated by the administration's delay in filling senior positions under Geithner, partly because of the increasingly stringent vetting rules. But Neal Wolin, previously the department's general counsel, was nominated Monday for deputy Treasury secretary, potentially easing the load Geithner has been carrying and adding another voice for the administration.

At the same time, Lael Brainard was named the department's top official for international affairs, and Stuart Levey will remain as its top counter-terrorism official, the administration said. The appointments would round out three of the top four positions at Treasury.

In the face of a communications vacuum, the Obama administration has come to rely on the president as its principal economic spokesman. Obama is turning up everywhere. Last week, he talked about the AIG bonus scandal on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in between quips about the search for a family dog.

On Sunday the president was on TV again, discussing the financial system with Steve Kroft of CBS' "60 Minutes." And Obama is to give a prime time news conference tonight in which the economy is certain to be a central focus.

Treasury officials declined to comment for this article. The White House did not return calls for comment. But the Treasury Department provided a document containing more than two dozen bulleted items illustrating Geithner's workload and summarizing his media appearances.

This week, Geithner appears to be limiting his media time to more business-oriented forums, such as his interview Monday with CNBC's Erin Burnett. He testifies today before a House committee on the AIG bailout, but that appearance will quickly be overshadowed when Obama holds his news conference later in the day.

Experts on the economy credit Obama for being an effective advocate for his policies. He has frequently managed to explain the complex roots of the financial meltdown in everyday terms.

Describing the AIG collapse on the "Tonight Show," for example, he said: "Then they decided -- some smart person decided -- let's put a hedge fund on top of the insurance company."

But economists add that no president can do it alone.

"We can't rely on the president exclusively," Rivlin said. "You can't have the president talk about the economy all the time. He's got to talk about Afghanistan and other things. You can't overuse the president."

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