Geithner: I envied John Roberts's eloquence

Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a harsh critic of his communication skills, and envied Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for his ability to make an argument.

In his new book, Geithner writes he was “envious” of Roberts’s ability to build his case for upholding the vast majority of the president’s healthcare reform law in 2012. The government’s bailout programs remain widely reviled by the American public, and Geithner blames himself at least in part for that.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I wasn’t a natural communicator,” he wrote in Stress Test. “I remember that when I read Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision upholding ObamaCare, I felt envious of the clarity of his argument, whatever the quality of the legal reasoning. Nobody ever accused us of that kind of clarity.”

Geithner says that he and his team had a big, harried job steering the nation through the financial crisis, and faced challenges in finding the right balance on communications. Early on in the crisis, he said the government did not want to emphasize how bad things were and spook people, and later on, they did not want to appear to be celebrating while people were still feeling pinched. But Geithner, an inexperienced public speaker, does not think he helped matters.

“I wasn’t very eloquent,” he said.

While the bailouts remain unpopular both in and outside of Washington, Geithner is a staunch defender of them in his new book. But he is far less generous regarding his own oratorical skills.

“I didn’t enjoy public speaking, and I wasn’t good at it,” he wrote, calling himself a “backstage guy."

In particular, he blasts himself for his first major address as President Obama’s Treasury secretary. With markets teetering and the world watching, Geithner stepped to the podium at the Treasury Department, one day after Obama announced his top economic steward would lay out the administration’s plan for getting out of the financial collapse. It also came after Geithner’s bruising confirmation battle, at a critical point for him to win back the public’s confidence.

It would be the first time Geithner ever used a teleprompter, and in his words, “It’s fair to say the speech did not go well.”

Stocks fell 3 percent as Geithner spoke, and ended the day down 5 percent, with the financial sector dropping 11 percent. He described his appearance as “shifty” and wavering. And many specifics for the government’s response had not yet been finalized, leading to a muddled message. To the public, the speech sounded like the government would be writing blank checks to Wall Street. And to financial markets, it sounded like the government would not do enough to stop the bleeding.

“It was a bad speech, badly delivered, rattling confidence at a bad time,” he wrote.

He was criticized across the board, from respected pundits to Saturday Night Live. Even Obama was openly frustrated by the dismal outing the next day.

“How the hell did this happen?” Obama said at the economic briefing the next day, according to Geithner.

While never becoming known for his eloquence, Geithner survived his rough first outing, outlasting several other Obama economic advisers before leaving the administration at the beginning of 2013.