Bad Luck Timmy's “No Sale”

The Treasury secretary's not-so-good day

There's a sign you still find in quite a few old-style diners:  "In God We Trust -- All Others Pay Cash."

And remember that old chestnut:  "I'm from the government, I'm here to help you." 

In some bizarre way, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Tuesday managed to get on the wrong side of those two boilerplate bits of conventional wisdom/sarcasm. Which leads to perhaps the most important questions of the first three weeks of the Barack Obama administration: Is Geithner the administration's bad-luck charm?  Does he have a reverse Midas-touch?

After all, he was the first one to reveal his tax problems, revelations that ultimately led to the demise of administration picks Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer

One day after Obama gives a pretty strong news conference that recalibrates the economic stimulus discussion -- and sets up what should be a victory lap after the Senate passed an $838 billion measure -- the administration's point-man delivers a near-incomprehensible address on the next installment of the bank bailout. Something about committing $1.5 trillion in public and private funds -- possibly topping out at $2 trillion -- to help out banks, homeowners and the overall credit market.

Result:  The Dow drops 382 points -- nearly five percent.

That free-fall suggests a decided lack of trust in the president's top salesman. Obama himself, meanwhile, was out of town -- down in Florida simultaneously campaigning for and celebrating passage of the stimulus package. 

Perhaps that big shout-out the president gave  to Geithner's upcoming speech the night before wasn't the best decision? 

Interestingly, Tuesday papers were filled with stories suggesting that Geithner had won an internal struggle with the Obama team over placing tougher restrictions on financial institutions.  So, why would Wall Street react negatively to Geithner presenting an outline for saving the financial industry?

As the chief economist at one of Geithner's old jobs -- the International Monetary Fund -- put it:  "The market is responding to vagueness. This is not a plan. In the annals of plan-announcing, this is very vague."

Geithner talked about applying a "stress test" to determine which banks would get aid. But, ultimately, nothing passed the "plain English" test.  For that matter, Geithner didn't pass the "plain English-as-determined-by-Congress" test later in the day.

Something has become pretty clear in the first few weeks of this young administration: The public may or may not have a "Messiah-complex" when it comes to Obama (the continuing adoring crowds he received in Indiana and Florida suggest that), but they don't trust anything else coming out of Washington -- not the House, the Senate or even Obama's appointees. 

Geithner is definitely part of the problem -- the guy who screws up his own taxes presents a bailout plan that needs an understanding of third-level calculus to comprehend.  But after a decade of "I did not have sex with that woman..." and  "There are WMDs in Iraq" and "Mission Accomplished,"  the public's willingness to accept bold statements, such as "This $700 billion will fix the credit problem," at face value is completely exhausted. 

President Obama may not like it, but he no longer has the luxury of compartmentalizing.  Rushing off to Florida to continue selling a plan that is already passing in Congress -- while the more important sale is coming out of Treasury -- is not a wise move. Mr. President, stay home, keep an eye on things at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- and make sure complex plans can be delivered with both clarity and specificity.

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.

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