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03.24.09

Triumph of the Geeks and Tough Guys

While Obama yuks it up with Leno, Timid Timmy becomes Tiger Tim and Andrew Cuomo the man of the hour. How quickly in these frantic times reputations soar and crash and are suddenly made all over.

One of the many bummers of our ongoing miseries at the moment is that they have deprived Obama devotees of their expected post-electoral nirvana. Stem-cell research is restored, torture is stopped, diplomacy is back, high-speed rail is on the way! But where are the balloons and high fives and Yes We Did parties? Buried under an avalanche of toxic assets.

Obama is the only person walking around with a big smile on his face. That onset of wild laughter on 60 Minutes about how humorous it is that no one in America, I mean no one, wants a bailout for the auto companies was one of the more surreal presidential performances lately. Why has Obama suddenly turned into the Paris Hilton of teachable moments? We realize he’s just trying to shore up his poll ratings so he can distance himself from Pelosi’s pitchfork mob, but a 60 Minutes sitdown right after the Leno armchair session on the preceding Thursday seemed—for him—strangely tone-deaf to the risk of overexposure. (Thank god he skipped the Gridiron Dinner.)

Maybe being a slight, quizzical infant prodigy is actually right for now—after all, chrome-domed Hank Paulson looked like a CEO is supposed to look, but he got it all wrong.

In this current crisis, I’m not in the mood for an exclusive peek at Sasha and Malia’s new swingset on the grounds of the White House. And it’s time the president dropped his gosh-this-is-fun-and-weird riff about the perks of being the most powerful man in the world. He talked about being wary of the presidential bubble, but it feels like he’s already trapped in there. Couldn’t he have mustered a bit more passion on 60 Minutes than that mild repudiation of the near-endorsement he gave last week to the House’s preposterous vote for a punitive tax response on AIG bonuses, after he himself had said it was OK?

Even as Obama drops to a 59 percent approval rating from 64 percent last month and is starting to give his supporters little flutters of panic, Geithner’s geekiness has started to feel reassuringly authentic. The market—that testosterone-fueled imponderable—certainly loved his bank plan, and the beleaguered Treasury secretary is now being helped by the lowered expectations built up by his botched debut. Maybe thoughtful is OK after all! Maybe being a slight, quizzical infant prodigy is actually right for now—after all, chrome-domed Hank Paulson looked like a CEO is supposed to look, but he got it all wrong! He wasn’t a thinker! He didn’t understand financial markets! He was a salesman, not a strategist! When the market jumps by 500 points, Timid Timmy is suddenly Tiger Tim. (Especially when he unveils his plan without cameras.)

A fascinating aspect of these frantic times is the speed with which reputations soar and crash and are suddenly made over. Just as we have seen demigods like Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin and all those high-flying CEOs toppled from their pedestals, we now see the ascendance of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo as the unexpected man of the hour. He looked great when he went after Merrill Lynch’s commode-loving CEO John Thain over the obscene bonuses he paid out just before Merrill was taken over by Bank of America, and even better when he subpoenaed the excessive bonus details from AIG. Last night, he scored big when he announced that 15 of the top 20 retention-bonus recipients in AIG’s financial-products unit had agreed to give back their spoils, bringing Cuomo’s haul to $50 million—a pittance in the scheme of things (only 50 percent of the bonus bucks), but a big haul of psychic satisfaction to the walking wounded seething for some vestige of reparation.

The political rap on Andrew in the preceding seven years was that he was too mean and tough and abrasive (he was a boor in 2002 in his abortive run for the nomination for governor against Carl McCall) and also a bit crazy (ask his former wife Kerry Kennedy). But now New York is happy to get the asshole it needs. Cuomo has clearly learned as much from his predecessor Eliot Spitzer’s mistakes as from his own. He has avoided bombast and picked his targets carefully. When Spitzer was AG, he treated his case over whether Dick Grasso made too much money as head of the New York Stock Exchange with the same zeal as his case against Wall Street firms ripping off small investors by peddling crummy Internet stocks with bogus stock research.

By contrast, Cuomo's nuanced approach can be seen in his case against Merrill Lynch and Bank of America. Cuomo said very little personally about the key players involved and when he did, it was only about the issue at hand. He has merely stated the obvious: that Ken Lewis and John Thain are thwarting his investigation by not providing more information on the bonuses. If Cuomo goes on drawing blood with a rapier, he’ll make the populist hysterics in Congress look even more retro. Indeed with New York’s befuddled Gov. David Paterson down to a tragic 17 percent approval rating, Andy is well on his way to being the next governor of New York and a future presidential candidate. The man has met the hour, which is how all great political careers are made.

Of course, both of these revived reputations will help Obama keep his. Cuomo’s effectiveness in shaking down the bonuses helps to go a small way to lance the boil of vindictive outrage that is clouding serious political decisions, while Geithner’s comeback vindicates the president’s patience and belief in him. Five months ago, we wanted reason and moderation and hope; now we need action and toughness and resolve. Can the White House turn off the laugh track and give us both?

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.