Tim Geithner's Economic Recovery Tour

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner took to the New York Times editorial page on Tuesday to tell Americans how great the economic recovery is going. On Wednesday afternoon, he's scheduled to speak at the Center for American Progress, where he'll presumably expand on his defense of the administration's management of the economy. If the quality of Geithner's op-ed is any predictor of the quality of Geithner's speech, Wednesday's event is sure to be a must-miss. The title of Geithner's op-ed—and I am not kidding—is the extremely patronizing and almost-impossible-to-parody "Welcome to the Recovery." (Did the Times headline writers come up with that one? That's no excuse.) 

I don't know what Geithner's apparent "economic success" tour (he was on Good Morning America on Tuesday, too) is supposed to accomplish. A Times op-ed is not going to convince Republican pundits to support Obama's economic policies. It isn't winning over their libertarian or liberal colleagues, either. Perhaps the administration hopes that Joe-the-New-York-Times-reader will forward Geithner's op-ed (or the video of his GMA appearance) to his friends and family with a thoughtful message: "I guess things really are improving!" But when more than nine percent of Americans are unemployed (16.5 percent if you're using U-6), it's going to be hard to convince even Joe that things are peachy. "The public is unlikely to be fooled," writes Ryan Avent. As Kevin Drum says, "the economy still sucks." Geithner's vaunted powers of persuasion aren't going to convince people otherwise. The thing that's most likely to persuade people the economic situation is improving is to improve the economic situation.

So given all that, why did Geithner's op-ed even get written? There are a number of possible explanations, and none of them make the administration look particularly good. 

  1. The Obama administration knows that things are worse than Geithner says, but is spinning for political reasons. This would imply that the administration thinks that Americans are easily fooled about the state of the economy. If the administration thinks that, they've got another thing coming. Also, this is a strategy based on dishonesty. That's not unprecedented in politics (far from it), but it's still slimy.
  2. The Obama administration thinks that things are better than they are. This would imply that the administration is stupid, pollyannaish, and insular. Those are bad things—not only on their face but also because they mean the administration won't take the steps necessary to improve the economy.
  3. The Obama administration is hoping the economy is "fixed," but is pretty sure it's not, and they need someone to be the sacrificial lamb to tell voters (falsely) that everything's going to be okay. So they're throwing the already damaged Tim Geithner under the bus. Geithner is making the kind of statements that Republicans will point to in 12 months when unemployment is still over 8 (or 9) percent. If the GOP is running Congress by then (and it probably will be), the administration might feel like it needs to fire someone to appease its critics. (The White House hasn't seemed reluctant to fire people to please the Right so far.) Geithner's head might be the first to roll. All the points from number one apply here, too. This scenario reminds me of the Bush years, when the administration would trot out some hapless, soon-to-be-fired flunky to assure Americans that everything was going just fine in Iraq. 
  4. The administration knows the economy isn't "fixed," and secretly blames the Republicans, but really believes all of its happy talk about bipartisanship and doesn't want to play hardball. This one makes the administration seem dishonest, naive, and weak—the trifecta! Paul Krugman suggests that "one way to play [the bad economy] politically would be to tell the truth [about it being bad], and try to place the onus on Republicans, accusing them of perpetuating high unemployment." I'm skeptical that political rhetoric could change people's opinions about who they trust to manage the economy. Still, if the Obama administration secretly believes that the Republicans are blocking economic recovery measures, it could at least be trying to work around the congressional GOP's obstructionism. It hasn't even done that.
  5. It's just an op-ed, and we shouldn't read too much into it. We can only hope! 

One final thought, from 538's Nate Silver: "One overarching critique of some of the less successful Presidencies of the recent past is that they suffer from a bunker mentality: they were either too stubborn, or too detached from reality, to acknowledge mistakes and correct errant courses of action." The Obama administration still hasn't admitted any error in its response to the economic crisis. But almost everyone agrees that the economy isn't recovering quickly enough to return us to full employment any time soon. Maybe it's time to climb out of the bunker, explain what went wrong, and fix it.