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Friday, March 27, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, the White House focused on pitching its new plan for economic recovery. Last time they tried this hard was in early February, when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled the administration’s proposal for dealing with the toxic assets plaguing financial institutions. His performance was not – electrifying.

TIMOTHY GEITHNER: We'll be able to access a new funding mechanism that uses capital from the Treasury as a bridge to private capital.

BOB GARFIELD: Both the plan, which lacked specifics, and Geithner, who lacked vim, were given two thumbs down by the media – and the stock market, which tanked.

TIMOTHY GEITHER: - greater than which would have been possible in the absence of government support.

BOB GARFIELD: So this week, the White House went a different route. Geithner explained his plan to reporters in a pen-and-pad chat – no TV cameras allowed. CNN’s Jessica Yellin was there, and she said it was probably for the best.

JESSICA YELLIN: He is not a person who exudes confidence. He looks like an overgrown prep school student who’s coming before the administration board because they broke the honor code.

MAN: Oh, my goodness! [LAUGHS]

JESSICA YELLIN: He sort of sits there kind of cowering back.

MAN: Yeah?

JESSICA YELLIN: It’s just his style.

BOB GARFIELD: Keeping Geithner off camera may have helped. The Dow shot up almost seven percent. But still, the cameras were waiting, and someone who does exude confidence had to pitch the plan to the American people. Enter the President, pitching on The Tonight Show at the end of last week, 60 Minutes over the weekend, a prime time press conference on Tuesday, a digital town hall. Peter Nicholas, political reporter for The L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, has been tracking the administration’s efforts to sell its economic plan. Peter, welcome to the show.

PETER NICHOLAS: Nice to be with you.

BOB GARFIELD: So travel back with me in time. Under the Bush Administration, if there was a concept or a policy idea or anything else to float, you'd hear it from the president, you'd hear it from the vice-president, you'd hear it from the spokesman at the podium, you'd hear it on FOX News. We haven't seen that phenomenon so much in the Obama Administration.

PETER NICHOLAS: I think that’s correct. They've been hard pressed to find a person with the credibility and gravitas and stature to really talk about the economy in a convincing way. In that vacuum, Barack Obama has essentially been carrying the whole load himself.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, we have a president who, at least so far, has an extraordinary amount of political capital. Shouldn't he be able to have his way with Congress? I mean, how important is selling the plan?

PETER NICHOLAS: Well, I think that selling the plan has become hugely important. He has to convince not only that narrow audience in Congress but also the broader public in hopes that the public will ratchet up the pressure on Congress to support his agenda. We saw FDR do this way back in 1933 when he did Fireside Chats, where he reassured people that the banks were going to be solvent. We're seeing the Obama Administration feel its way in that regard, and it doesn't seem to be in the place it wants to be as yet.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, I don't even know who FDR’s Treasury Secretary was. Where does Tim Geithner fit in in, you know, the history of Treasury Secretaries? I know Robert Rubin was front and center in the Clinton Administration.

PETER NICHOLAS: Rubin, to some degree, was the standard for what a Treasury Secretary should be. One can disagree with his policies, but he was able to reassure Wall Street. He could communicate to the broader public. To some degree, Tim Geithner and contemporary Treasury Secretaries will be judged against this high standard that Rubin set. To this point, it doesn't seem that Geithner has cleared that high bar. In fairness to Geithner, people close to him say, well, look, it’s unfair to expect him to both solve the economic crisis and also be the chief spokesman. He just has too much to do. But there are veterans of past administrations, and economic experts as well, who believe the Treasury Secretary, the Chief Economic Advisor, Larry Summers, the head of the National Economic Council, Christina Romer, also have an important role to play. And, to this day, they're still trying to cast about, reach deeper and deeper into the bench, to find a spokesman who can inspire people. And last Sunday they had Jared Bernstein, Vice-President Biden’s economic advisor, out on the Sunday talk shows for the first time.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that’s pretty far down the bench for sure.


BOB GARFIELD: But tell me about the starters. There were some specific gaffes by prominent members of the President’s economic team. Can you describe them?

PETER NICHOLAS: Yes, that’s correct. Christina Romer was on a Sunday talk show recently and she was asked what would seem to be a simple question.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Are the fundamentals of this economy sound?

CHRISTINA ROMER: Well, of course the fundamentals are sound in the sense that the American workers are sound. We have a good capital stock. We have good technology. We know that temporarily we're in a mess.

PETER NICHOLAS: Now, that’s actually a politically freighted question. During the campaign, John McCain was asked that question back in September and he said, yes, the fundamentals of the economy are strong. He was widely criticized for that, and most vociferously by the Obama team. Another gaffe was when Larry Summers talked about the AIG bonuses and said, well, yes, it’s an outrage, and, yes, it’s wrong, but –

LARRY SUMMERS: We are a country of law. There are contracts. The government cannot just abrogate contracts.

PETER NICHOLAS: And that was at odds with what Barack Obama said the very next day when he went out and in a public appearance said, we're going to do everything we can and we're going to use all the leverage at our disposal to try to roll back these bonuses. I think what we're seeing is Obama has chosen an economic team for its technical expertise but not necessarily for its communicative powers, and the limitations of that strategy are now becoming clear.

BOB GARFIELD: I want to end this by coming back to where we started, on the subject of message discipline. When New York Times columnist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman came out against aspects of the administration’s plans, there was this moment, for me at least, of cognitive dissonance.

I mean, I guess I can't shake the eight years of the Bush Administration, when whatever policy announced by the White House that day was sure to show up along the whole length and breadth of the vast right-wing conspiracy. What’s happened to the vast left-wing conspiracy? Should I have been surprised that Paul Krugman left the reservation?

PETER NICHOLAS: I don't think so. First of all, Paul Krugman, if you remember, was critical of Barack Obama during the campaign and was much more aligned with Hillary Clinton. But I spoke to Senator Evan Bayh about this some of this yesterday, actually, in an interview, and he was saying Democrats are pretty good at creating circular firing squads. There’s less message discipline.

BOB GARFIELD: Peter, thank you very much.

PETER NICHOLAS: Thank you, Bob. Great to be with you.

BOB GARFIELD: Peter Nicholas covers politics for the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times.