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Geithner Began With 'Smoldering' Economy; What Does He Leave?

Jan 11, 2013
Originally published on January 11, 2013 8:35 am

Outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has had a bruising four years. He took office when the U.S. economy was plunging into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Nominating Jack Lew as Geithner's successor Thursday, President Obama praised his departing Treasury secretary for helping to get the economy back on track.

"With the wreckage of our economy still smoldering and unstable, I asked Tim to help put it back together," Obama said. "And thanks in large part to his steady hand, our economy has been growing again for the past three years, our businesses have created nearly 6 million new jobs."

Obama went on to cite other issues Geithner shepherded, including the financial overhaul and the bailout of the U.S. auto industry.

"When the history books are written, Tim Geithner is going to go down as one of our finest secretaries of the Treasury," Obama said.

Fending Off Calls For Resignation

The sustained applause for Geithner from an audience that included his administration colleagues was in great contrast to the reception he often got on Capitol Hill. After less than a year in office, Republicans, like Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, were asking him to resign.

"Poll after poll shows the public has lost confidence in this ... president's ability to handle the economy," Brady said in November 2009. "For the sake of our jobs, will you step down from your post?"

Geithner responded to that request with a burst of emotion, saying the president's policies had broken the back of the financial panic and turned the economy around.

"Without those actions ... you would have an economy still falling, not growing. You would have had job losses still accelerating, not slowing. You would have had the value of American savings still falling, not rising," he said.

'Vastly Better Off'

Alan Blinder, an economics professor at Princeton University and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, says history will view Geithner as a successful Treasury secretary.

"We will be vastly better off on the day Tim Geithner leaves office ... compared to the day he took office. There's just no doubt about that. So, the progress will be huge," he says.

In listing Geithner's accomplishments, Blinder, who was also an economic adviser for the Clinton White House, points first to Geithner's handling of the financial crisis, especially the bank stress tests.

"It was a modern equivalent of FDR's bank holiday. Geithner didn't have to go that far — close all the banks," he says. "The success and the plausibility of the results of the stress tests renewed confidence in the banks, and people stopped worrying about them going bust."

Working With Wall Street

But Giethner's record is not unblemished. Where he stumbled badly, Blinder says, was in handling the foreclosure crisis. Sheila Bair, the former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., agrees. She says Geithner was too concerned about helping the big Wall Street banks.

"They were successful in stabilizing those institutions, but they weren't successful in getting credit flowing to the real economy again," she says. "We hardly spent any money on helping distressed homeowners, and ... those distressed mortgages were at the heart of the problem."

Bair also credits Geithner for the success of the bank stress tests, and for other financial reforms. But ultimately, she argues, Geithner's Wall Street-centric view prolonged the country's economic problems.

"The economy is better, yes, but is it as good as it should be? No, it's not," she says.

Geithner would agree that the economy still has a long way to go, but he stands by the steps he took to bring it back from the edge of the abyss.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prepares to step down, an image stays in the mind. It's a newspaper photo of Geithner at his desk in the early months of his tenure, looking rather alone.

INSKEEP: The accompanying story noted that President Obama's administration was struggling to fill the jobs of Geithner's subordinates, leaving the Treasury undermanned during the biggest financial crisis in generations. Geithner weathered that storm and many later battles, and now finally prepares to step down.

MONTAGNE: President Obama nominated a successor, Jack Lew, yesterday. NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie has this look back at Tim Geithner's tenure.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Tim Geithner has had a bruising four years at the Treasury. He took office when the U.S. economy was plunging into the worst recession since the Great Depression. Flanked by Geithner and Lew at the White House yesterday, the president praised his departing Treasury secretary for helping to get the economy back on track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With the wreckage of our economy still smoldering and unstable, I asked Tim to help put it back together. And thanks in large part to his steady hand, our economy has been growing again for the past three years, our businesses have created nearly six million new jobs.

YDSTIE: Mr. Obama went on to cite other issues Geithner shepherded, among them the financial reform and the rescue of the U.S. auto industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: So, when the history books are written, Tim Geithner's going to go down as one of our finest secretaries of the Treasury.

YDSTIE: The sustained applause for Geithner from an audience that included his administration colleagues was in great contrast to the reception he often got on Capitol Hill. After less than a year in office, Republicans, like Texas Congressman Kevin Brady, were asking him to resign.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE KEVIN BRADY: Poll after poll shows the public has lost confidence in this president's ability to handle the economy. For the sake of our jobs, will you step down from your post?

YDSTIE: Geithner responded to that request with a burst of emotion, saying the president's policies had broken the back of the financial panic and turned the economy around.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY TIMOTHY GEITHNER: And without those actions, you would have an economy still falling, not growing. You would have had job losses still accelerating, not slowing. You would have had the value of American savings still falling, not rising.

YDSTIE: Alan Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, says history will view Tim Geithner as a successful Treasury secretary.

ALAN BLINDER: We will be vastly better off on the day Tim Geithner leaves office compared to the day he took office. There's just no doubt about that. So the progress will be huge.

YDSTIE: In listing Geithner's accomplishments, Blinder - who was also an economic adviser for the Clinton White House - points first to Geithner's handling of the financial crisis, especially the bank stress tests.

BLINDER: It was a modern equivalent of FDR's bank holiday. Geithner didn't have to go that far, close all the banks. The success and the plausibility of the results of the stress tests renewed confidence in the banks, and people stopped worrying about them going bust.

YDSTIE: But Geithner's record is not unblemished. Where he stumbled badly, says Blinder, was in handling the foreclosure crisis. Former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair agrees. She says Geithner was too concerned about helping the big Wall Street banks.

SHEILA BAIR: They were successful in stabilizing those institutions, but they weren't successful in getting credit flowing to the real economy again. And we hardly spent any money on helping distressed homeowners. And, again, those distressed mortgages were at the heart of the problem.

YDSTIE: Bair also credits Geithner for the success of the bank stress tests and for other financial reforms. But ultimately, she argues, Geithner's Wall Street-centric view prolonged the country's economic problems.

BAIR: So, the economy is better, yes, but is it as good as it should be? No, it's not.

YDSTIE: Geithner would agree the economy still has a long way to go, but he stands behind the steps he took to bring it back from the edge of the abyss. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.