If, two years ago, reports of Timothy Geithner possibly leaving reached the White House, some advisers would have seized on them as an opportunity; President Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary got off to a very rocky start, and was considered a short-termer.
Today, if rumblings that he’s thinking about stepping down made their way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., there would be near panic. Geithner is as close to an indispensable figure as there is in the Obama administration.
The 49-year-old Treasury chief is unrivaled in economic policymaking in the administration, commands respect in Asia and Europe, and is a presidential favorite.
Some associates say that in recent months, he has ruminated privately about leaving before the end of this term, perhaps when the battle over the debt ceiling is resolved this summer. A few knowledgeable people take this seriously; most doubt it.
It’s understandable that Geithner at times feels spent. He was the head of the New York Federal Reserve beginning in 2003. In his final year in that post, 2008, he was at the epicenter of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He then took on the Treasury job, starting with a contentious confirmation and embarrassing initial public performances.
And he had to devise a plan to prop up a teetering financial system, as well as a faltering economy. In so doing, he collaborated with his friend, the then-director of Obama’s National Economic Council, Larry Summers, a sworn enemy of self doubt.
Testimony to Congress
The post of Treasury secretary demands punishing global travel, and painful obsequiousness to Congress. By one count, Geithner has testified before congressional committees 52 times, with many more private meetings, and House Republicans would love to double that number this year.
Over the past three years, no public official, save the president, has endured a more grueling pace.
The father of a college-aged daughter and a son in high school, Geithner has spent almost his entire life in public service. His means are relatively modest; his net worth is estimated in official disclosures between $770,000 and $1.8 million.
In addition to the economic challenges he confronts, Geithner has some internal problems. There are at least a half-dozen important Treasury jobs that are unfilled, partly due to the cumbersome confirmation process, and also to the remarkable slowness this administration exhibits on such matters.
It also isn’t clear what Obama would do if Geithner expressed a wish to leave. Presidents Lyndon Johnson, through coercion, and Bill Clinton, through charm, would have talked a valued Cabinet member out of such thoughts. That’s not the Obama style. During the 2008 campaign, one associate said he “travels light” when it comes to people.
There would be no natural replacement. Knowledgeable observers say the first two names that come to mind would be the former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and the current occupant of that post, Bill Daley; both lack Geithner’s financial and international expertise.
The secretary’s experience with China goes back to his youth, when his father was posted there for a time, and he is a favorite of financial elites in Beijing. Although U.S.-China relations are fraught with strategic and political tensions, economic ties have been comparatively smooth and improving over the past two years; Geithner and Vice Premier Wang Qishan have a real rapport.
European Debt Crisis
The Treasury chief nudging on the debt crisis has ruffled some feathers in Europe; still, many top European officials express respect for his views and expertise.
At home, his relations with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recall the celebrated alliance of Robert Rubin, Summers and Alan Greenspan in the 1990s. The difference is, this time, given the political heat from the Republican right, neither man talks about the relationship much.
The Treasury secretary’s political acumen has improved, as have his once acrimonious relations with congressional Republicans. “You can have a conversation with Tim Geithner,” says House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
His political instincts, however, fall well short of his financial ones. He’s no James Baker, who was President Ronald Reagan’s astute Treasury chief. Geithner was genuinely surprised by the outrage on Main Street over the bonuses paid to executives of American International Group Inc. after the insurer was bailed out by taxpayers.
While he no longer has the deer in the headlights look he had in early public appearances, he sometimes still comes across as a passionless technocrat; in private sessions with politicians, the press and business leaders, he’s much more effective and personable, displaying a wickedly sharp sense of humor.
His role model for the current job probably is his friend and predecessor, Bob Rubin. There hasn’t been a secretary since Rubin left 12 years ago who possessed Geithner’s influence both with the financial community and the president.
Still, if Geithner were to leave after the debt crisis, the legacy would be incomplete. That’s one reason that people who know him believe he will stay.
Another is his genuine loyalty to Obama and a sense of pride in the administration’s accomplishments.
More so than all but a handful of people in the higher echelons of government, Geithner is genuinely devoted to public service. It’s in the genes. His father was a top Ford Foundation official, mainly in Asia -- where he supervised Obama’s mother - - and his uncle, Jonathan Moore, was a leading Republican official and Harvard College dean.
When the debt ceiling ruckus is resolved -- probably close to the Aug. 2 deadline -- the Treasury secretary will be exhausted. He’ll rest for a few days and then in all likelihood come back for the final battles of this Obama term.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)