James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Is Geithner the next to leave Obamaland?

October 21, 2010

The man behind the Volcker Rule and the bank tax will soon be leaving Washington. That’s right, Obama political adviser David Axelrod is headed back to Chicago. What, you thought I meant Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner? As for Geithner, he will more than likely be at Treasury for the duration, though in some ways he has a better skillset for the National Economic Council. Here’s a bit from my recent Reuters Breakingviews columnette on Obama’s pal:

Treasury secretaries are typically former CEOs, prominent politicos or longtime presidential pals. A career technocrat, Geithner didn’t tick any of those boxes. Instead, he was part of the crisis-response troika, along with Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson. Effectively, Geithner was hired to be a fixer.

Nearly two years in, it’s Mission More or Less Accomplished. The St. Louis Fed’s “financial stress index” — incorporating various interest rates, yield spreads and bond indices — is currently 0.48 after hitting a peak of 5.09 in October 2008. Even the pilloried bank bailout gets better with age. (It was certainly better than outright bank nationalization). Geithner deserves considerable credit for it, especially his push for “stress tests” to be included.

But a new set of skills may be required for the next two years. Obama soon will need help from his Treasury secretary advancing a new budget agenda after his ballyhooed deficit commission issues its report in December. The job also will require pushing Beijing to trade more freely while tamping down on protectionist sentiment at home, redoubling efforts on unemployment and finely honing a tax policy.

Geithner might not be the obvious candidate for most of this modified job description. Before he got to the Fed in 2003, his education and career had been more focused on international affairs than domestic issues. And Geithner could still present political liabilities given earlier personal tax missteps and his dicey relations with Congress.

But if not Geithner, who? Wall Street bosses are still radioactive, while recruiting Clinton administration veterans could look desperate. The scarcity of obvious replacements is highlighted by the permanent presence of media mogul and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s name on the Beltway circuit, despite his repeated denials of interest in the job.

Most importantly, Geithner seems still to have the full confidence of his boss. That’s probably more than enough for him to keep his spot on the team.

Me: I think Geithner has it about right on China trade, and he certainly takes the budget deficit seriously. He is even sounding better on “King Dollar, as my friend Larry Kudlow puts it. It’s really no joke that he could have comfortably been a member of John McCain’s cabinet.  On tax policy, he and the rest of Team Obama have it totally wrong.  Raising the U.S. tax burden in the current system is anti-growth and thus terrible for the nation’s long-run solvency.

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