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03.09.09

Stop Crucifying Tim Geithner

Sorry, firing the embattled Treasury secretary won’t solve our financial crisis.

After being parodied on Saturday Night Live and pilloried on Meet the Press, does Tim Geithner sit in this morning's economic briefing with the Sword of Damocles hovering over his Oval Office seat? For the moment the White House appears to be firmly behind the Treasury secretary, as does his staff, except, well, there isn't much of a staff. Not so the wolves of Washington who are already measuring his career in months, not years.

It was bound to happen. It was all getting too complicated. Every week has brought a new, devilishly tricky issue: fiscal stimulus, bank recapitalization, toxic mortgage securities. How are we to grasp it all?

The answer, it seems, is to resort to that old favorite, the politics of personality.

And this week it's Tim Geithner's turn. Now I can't honestly say whether or not Geithner is single-handedly responsible for the collapse of the capitalist world as we know it. I'm a political reporter, not a financial whiz, and until a few months ago I misguidedly thought a tarp was something you slept under on a summer weekend. But what I can see is that Geithner has become America's latest if-only-we-got-rid-of-him-it'd-all-be-better bogeyman.

Timothy Geithner has become America's latest if-only-we-got-rid-of-him-it'd-all-be-better bogeyman.

Last Friday, the Treasury secretary's offense was an inability to fill key posts. Last Tuesday, Republican Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida slammed Geithner for moving markets, the wrong way. "Mr. Secretary," she said, "It seems that every time a statement is issued by you the stock market plummets. I am sure that is not something you feel good about." It probably isn't, but that's not really relevant. Pinning our problems on Geithner doesn't actually solve our problems. This is not a plea for sympathy for the secretary (who has certainly made mistakes). It's a broader plea for nuanced understanding of difficult issues.

The easy retreat to personality bashing is the position of quick resort in circumstances where the facts themselves are too murky or technical or culturally confusing to be easily paraphrased in TV-ready sound bites.

Personalities are more fun and accessible than complex issues and people have, of course, the added advantage of actually driving policy. Personalities were what made last year's election campaign the best political theater ever.

But there is a risk that in failing to grapple with difficult issues—in Geithner's case, failing to try to grasp, for example, why taxpayers may be better off paying for their neighbors’ excessive housing investments rather than letting the nation's banking system fail. We in fact prolong our crisis because we avoid hard political realities.

Removing Geithner (as the whispering campaign is already suggesting) won't in and of itself free up the credit markets. That still remains an unimaginably hard thing to do with equally hard and deeply unpopular choices to be made, whether or not it's Geithner that makes them. The politics of personality are not confined to economic policy. It's even more acute in foreign affairs, where America has a history of resorting to it in times of crisis. It did something similar in the run-up to the Iraq war. By pinning the country's security woes on Saddam (and no, of course there is no equation between these two men, that's the oversimplified, dangerous route) we found an easy, ready-made, and legitimate demon. But, in the process, we avoided coming to grips with fundamental problems, most damagingly the religious and cultural splits within Iraq. I've often heard Americans lament, "If only we'd known about the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, maybe we'd have handled Iraq better." But the Bush administration was so focused on demonizing the persona of Saddam that these critical distinctions were not properly aired.

The desire for heroes is less prevalent but can by equally misleading. Remember John McCain's protestations after Russia (code: bad guy Putin) "attacked" Georgia last August? "We are all Georgians," trumpeted Sen. McCain. Then-candidate Obama was criticized by his own his foreign-policy advisors for failing to come down harder on Moscow. "You can never go wrong by being tough on Putin," one of them told me after Obama called for both sides to show restraint. But it turns out McCain's Georgian hero, President Mikheil Saakashvili, was less of a saint after all. Subsequent reports proved Georgia had antagonized its neighbor. The situation was, yes, ambiguous and complicated.

So Geithner may stay or he may go. Who knows? One thing however is certain. Those hideously complex issues? They're not going anywhere.

Katty Kay covers US politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. She is Washington correspondent for BBC World News America and has lived in D.C. for the past 12 years. She is the author, with Claire Shipman, of the upcoming book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success.