Tim Geithner left office on Friday and the revisionism's already underway. By any objective measure except one, Geithner's tenure failed to achieve its goals. And that one success, in rescuing the mega-banks of Wall Street, may prove to be the undoing of Obama's legacy. If bank misdeeds cause another crisis, which is very possible, he may be remembered for little else.
This, then, is a time for looking back at Geithner's last four years -- and the President's next four.
I'm normally a big fan of financier/writer Henry Blodget and his website, the immensely entertaining and information-rich Business Insider. But Blodget went off the deep end last week when he wrote "Well done, Tim Geithner!"
"You helped our country get through the storm," said Blodget, "and we all owe you our gratitude for that."
He knows better. So do millions of underwater homeowners, whose continued misery is the result of calculated decisions by Geithner and his team. Geithner's HAMP program for struggling borrowers frequently turned into the horror show known as "extend and pretend," in which victimized homeowners were given a ray of hope by their banks only to be bled dry of thousands while being tricked and tormented -- and eventually foreclosed upon anyway.
Millions of chronically-unemployed or under-employed Americans know better, too. Their plight can be seen in something Blodget's website calls (with characteristic enthusiasm) "The Scariest Jobs Chart Ever!"
Geithner won't be remembered for overseeing the TARP cash-funneling machine, a hectic but essentially mechanical function (think Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times). This chart is Geithner's real legacy.
Objects In the Mirror May Be Smaller Than They Appear
Geithner also received a rave review in the New York Times from auto bailout "czar" Steven Rattner, in a lengthy praise song for the man he refers to as "Tim."
"As we mingled over cocktails and canapes in the ornate Diplomatic Reception Room, the mood was mostly relaxed ..."
Rattner's blissed-out panegyric ignores millions of unemployed Americans, too -- except for a single comment as he winds up. "The problems of high unemployment and slow growth," Rattner allows offhandedly, "remain worriesome." His prose reflects the same noblesse oblige and self-satisfied world view as his the object of his admiration. It's a world in which conservatives "bark" and liberals "bleat," while Rattner and "Tim" are presumably content to purr.
That's the world that Geithner represented in the President's cabinet, a world where rescuing broken institutions and their overpaid failed executives is of paramount importance, while everyone else's fate is at best a "worriesome" side note. Although, at last report, the mood in the ornate Diplomatic Reception Room remains relaxed.
While not glossing over his errors, Matt Yglesias writes that Geithner was "among the most consequential" Treasury Secretaries of modern times. "Presumably no secretary will ever outdo Alexander Hamilton as a world-historical figure," Yglesias adds, "but by contemporary standards Geithner stands out as a colossus."
I disagree. Geithner's stature is diminished by proximity to Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a truly transformative figure who paved the way for massive bank deregulation and the introduction of catastrophically risky "financial innovations." Geithner was an excellent manager, but he wasn't transformative.