It was a tough sell for Timothy Geithner, and he looked it.
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 — couldn’t 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.
That’s 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 Geithner’s nationally televised performance.
The man who is a main face of President Barack Obama’s 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, Geithner’s speech and his appearance later before the Senate Banking Committee were just part of Obama’s 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t 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.
"He comes across to me as a typical economist. He’s not a huge personality, he’s not really good at this," said Gilbert Coleman, president of Gilbert Coleman PHD, an economic consulting firm in Reno, Nev.
The treasury secretary spoke as Obama alighted in Fort 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 "we’ve 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 week’s end. And Geithner was appearing before the Senate Banking Committee to shore up support for the administration’s 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 didn’t 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."
However, credibility might be tough to win from consumers angered by special treatment of prominent people.
Geithner belatedly paid a second round of back taxes and interest — but no penalties that might have dogged regular Americans — once he was nominated as treasury secretary. His tax mistake, which he said was an honest one, inspired a third of the Senate to vote against his confirmation — including three Democrats and one independent.
He received a severance package of nearly a half-million dollars when he left his old job as president of the New York Federal Reserve for Obama’s Cabinet.
Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., last week had announced that he was refinancing two personal home mortgages from a troubled national lender that are being investigated by a Senate ethics panel.
Dodd said he sought no special treatment from Countrywide Financial Corp., when he refinanced his Washington and East Haddam, Conn., homes in 2003. Countrywide, a leading subprime lender at the center of the mortgage meltdown has been the focus of allegations that it gave favorable loan terms to lawmakers.