The new treasury secretary read from the teleprompter on his right. Then the one on his left. He hardly stood still or looked at his audience for more than a few moments during his big announcement on Tuesday.
Whether Geithner can handle the gargantuan task of bailing out a troubled government bailout – and saving the livelihoods of millions of Americans – couldnt be answered by a single solo performance. But he could have helped with a showing that looked more sure-footed, square-shouldered and said: I can handle this. I know what to do.
Thats a tall order for a treasury secretary introduced weeks ago to a jittery nation as a tax scofflaw, a Cabinet officer who won confirmation with a third of the Senate against him.
It showed in Geithners nationally televised performance.
The man who is a main face of President Barack Obamas recovery effort rarely looked through the camera to voters craving steadiness, his eyes drawn again and again to the words reflected in the trusty shields of glass.
First to his right, then his left. Briefly, he glanced at the copy of his remarks lying on the lectern and out to the reporters in the room.
He looked dwarfed by the American flags behind him.
To be sure, Geithners speech and his appearance later before the Senate Banking Committee were just part of Obamas campaign to gain the confidence of consumers, investors and others shaken by the recession. And it was important that he stick to his talking points and avoid off-the-cuff remarks that might cause the markets to sink.
But he didnt provide enough – in substance or in style – to keep that from happening.
The Dow Jones industrials plunged 382 points for the day.
“The markets are acting badly just because they thought he was going to have something more concrete than he did,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “He doesnt have a fully worked out plan.”
Additionally, opined another close observer, economists as a group cannot be relied upon for much in the way of presence.
The treasury secretary spoke as Obama alighted in Ft. Myers, Fla., an area reeling from foreclosures, to rally residents at a town hall-style event. In contrast to Geithner, Obama radiated his trademark cool competence at the event, praising the Senate for passing a massive stimulus bill but warning soberly that “weve got a little more work to do.”
That was an understatement. Back in Washington, a committee of House and Senate lawmakers were racing to reconcile their versions of the $800 billion-plus bill by weeks end. And Geithner was appearing before the Senate Banking Committee to shore up support for the administrations plan.
He did better in this atmosphere heavy with the minutiae of economic policy.
He was earnest and confident. No, he said, looking at each committee member, the administration didnt have the whole economic plan figured out. But “absolutely,” he would share the details with Congress when the details were finished.
“The American people have lost faith in the leaders of our financial institutions, and are skeptical that their government has – to this point – used taxpayers money in ways that will benefit them,” Geithner said in his opening remarks. “Together we can change this.”