Can Geithner Bounce Back?

Some Republicans are calling for Timothy Geithner’s head. President Barack Obama said Wednesday they can’t have it. Now what?

On a day in which Geithner found himself portrayed as the poster child for the administration’s handling of the AIG mess, House Republican leader John Boehner said the Treasury Secretary is “on thin ice.” Even some Democrats grumbled that Geithner is becoming a lightning rod for public anger.

The White House was forced to issue its third public defense of Geithner in as many days, while Obama sought to insulate his team from blame. “I know Washington’s all in a tizzy. Everybody’s pointing fingers at each other and saying, it’s their fault, the Democrats’ fault, the Republicans’ fault,” Obama told a crowd in California. “Listen. I’ll take responsibility. I’m the president.”

If Geithner is to survive, Democrats, analysts and even experts in crisis public relations say the Obama White House must find some way to improve the public image of a man who is becoming closely identified in the public mind with the ugly side of the Wall Street bailouts, including the controversy over AIG’s use of taxpayer money to pay $165 million in bonuses to top executives.

Put it this way: Obama’s made clear he’s not getting rid of Geithner. Now he needs a game plan for an urgent rehabilitation — which imagemeisters say will likely mean throwing Geithner a life raft by keeping him out of the limelight, giving him a more aggressive policy stance to sell and even filling out his depleted ranks at Treasury.

“Once you renew that commitment, you have to give him maximum support,” said David Gergen, an adviser to several past presidents, Republicans and Democrats. “They need to fortify him in every way they can. He deserves that. It’s a tragedy because he was so well regarded when he came in.”

For Democrats, the concern is to stop the bleeding before their political problem gets worse. Joe Trippi, a political consultant who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, worries that Geithner’s problems could soon begin to affect Obama, whose popularity remains high.

“There is only one other place for it to go, and that’s the White House,” said Trippi. “Some of this anger that is dissipated when it is aimed at AIG or Treasury could start to take a toll on the president and the White House.” Trippi says that means Geithner has to fight back on his own.

But at least one Democrat joined the chorus of Geithner critics on AIG. “I certainly made the case that the prospect of additional bonuses being paid out in the future was very imminent,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters Wednesday. He expressed frustration that Obama’s economic team, including Geithner and top White House economic aide Lawrence Summers, refused to support an amendment to block such bonuses attached to the Senate version of the stimulus bill in February.

Otherwise, the criticism broke along partisan lines. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) offered the first call for the head of the treasury secretary. “Quite simply, the Timothy Geithner experience has been a disaster,” Mack said.

Democrats offered support. Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said he’s not concerned with Geithner’s performance. “I think Geithner is so busy, he’s up to his ears,” Neal said, citing the G-20 talks, his meeting last week in Europe with fellow finance ministers, the trade agenda and budget issues. “Any reasonable person would conclude that the agenda’s pretty full.”

Inside the administration, Geithner’s condition appears to be stable. Cabinet shakeups are almost always preceded by ominous leaks from the White House about the soon-to-be-ousted. So far, Geithner is not hearing footsteps.

Obama made sure to issue a strong statement Wednesday when asked about the AIG mess by a reporter. “There has never been a secretary of the treasury, except maybe Alexander Hamilton, right after the Revolutionary War, who’s had to deal with the multiplicity of issues that Secretary Geithner is having to deal with — all at the same time,” Obama said. “Nobody is working harder than this guy. He is making all the right moves in terms of playing a bad hand.”

A Senate Democratic aide says there has been no indication privately that the White House is considering replacing Geithner. This aide said administration officials are sympathetic to Geithner’s predicament — as treasury secretary at a time of economic upheaval, he’s been forced to manage a series of crises whose solutions are sure to be politically unpalatable.

“The administration’s mentality is, we can’t keep driving out good people. He’s there because he understands the mechanics of how this works,” said the Democratic aide. “There’s nobody else that they could bring in that the public would have 1,000 percent confidence in, because of the nature of the job, and Geithner deserves credit for taking heat for a lot of things beyond his control.”

But the reality of why Geithner, despite the firestorm around him, seems to have job security is also more complicated. Any move to replace Geithner now could be viewed by the markets as a sign of panic. It would open up Obama to charges that he bungled one of his first significant personnel picks, as Geithner was chosen about three weeks after Obama was elected. And it would only exacerbate the situation at Treasury, where many top jobs remain unfilled and several top appointees backed out in recent weeks over issues that arose during their vetting. 

Geithner had political trouble even before the AIG scandal blew up. He was confirmed after embarrassing allegations that he’d underpaid his taxes, his first speech was widely panned for poor delivery, and the rollout of his economic plans has been bashed on Wall Street for a damaging lack of specifics.

But Obama officials attempting to breathe political life into the treasury secretary will find that there are at least as many opinions on how to spin Geithner as there are on how to fix the economy. And there’s no indication that any of it will work. Even some of the best public relations magicians in America are stumped on how to bolster Geithner’s image with the public — and whether such damage has already been done to his reputation that he won’t be able to recover.

The danger for a relatively unknown public figure like Geithner is that the public impressions of him — which are still fluid — will harden into a damaging caricature. The longer he’s on the national stage, the harder it will be to shape his image. Think of it as the Dan Quayle problem. Once the former vice president had been branded in the public mind as a lightweight, there was almost nothing to do to change that. For Geithner, time is of the essence.

Ken Sunshine, a public relations consultant whose clients have included Leonardo DiCaprio, Barbra Streisand and Ben Affleck, says Geithner — who has yet to answer a reporter’s question about the AIG mess — should keep out of sight until he has a very specific announcement to make. The public attention span is short, and there’s a chance this news cycle will pass without further damage to his career. On the economy, he says, “People want quick results, but we’re not going to get quick results, so he needs to spend more time doing his job and less time giving speeches.”

And Sunshine says that it would be a mistake to try to coach the treasury secretary too much. Even though he came under enormous criticism for his first efforts at public speaking in which his halting delivery and odd eye movements gave the impression that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time, Sunshine says Geithner doesn’t need media training. “Sending him to acting school isn’t going to do anything. Geithner seems like a very serious guy, and very smart.” Obama’s team can use that earnest-nerd image to their advantage, Sunshine says: “He’s the kind of guy you want in government — government shouldn’t just be a bunch of political hacks.”

But another veteran crisis communicator gives nearly opposite advice. Eric Dezenhall, a corporate and GOP consultant who runs Dezenhall Resources, says Geithner needs to be much more visible in the face of the crisis. “One of the things I have been wondering about is, ‘Where is Geithner?’ People need to see him speaking.”

Geithner was in London last week for the G-20 economic meeting, returning to Washington for remarks on small business on Monday. And although he was seen on camera Wednesday at Obama’s side, he hasn’t spoken publicly on the AIG matter, instead communicating through written statements.

For its part, the Treasury Department issued a statement Wednesday touting the accomplishments of Geithner to date, including crafting new regulations, developing a financial stability plan and putting together an auto task force. “Secretary Geithner and the Treasury team have accomplished an incredible amount in only five weeks on the job,” said spokesman Isaac Baker.

Still, one veteran political operative thinks Geithner is already beyond public-relations redemption. “He may go down in history as ‘TurboTax Tim’ who allowed the AIG bonuses,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, referring to Geithner’s admission that he prepared his faulty tax returns using the popular computer tax program.

Jeanne Cummings and Victoria McGrane contributed to this report.

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