Not long ago, President Barack Obama finally got around to filling three of the top jobs at the Treasury Department that had been vacant since his inauguration.
But even afterward, one top financial job was left conspicuously unfilled—namely, the role of Economic Surrogate in Chief.
A good economic statesman—somebody who can crunch budget projections by day and give good TV by night—can be hard to find. It’s a lesson that’s been driven home in Washington in recent months: when the secretary of the Treasury steps in front of the cameras, he’s getting the White House on Saturday Night Live, and not in a good way.
Perhaps this explains why Mr. Obama has himself spent so much time just doing it himself. But it can’t go on forever.
“The president has a lot bigger agenda than responding to why industrials were down or tech stocks were up,” syndicated columnist and PBS NewsHour commentator Mark Shields recently told The Observer. “He can’t be Erin Burnett, explaining every twist and turn in the markets. But given the gravity of the situation and the lack of alternatives, in too many instances, that has become what the president has had to do.”
“Tim Geithner, when he talks publicly, the markets tank,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said, trying to goose a passel of political pundits on the evening of March 24, after a prime-time press conference where the president explained his economic policy. “And, you know, Larry Summers is maybe great behind closed doors, but, you know, he’s not about to get a cable news show.”
In response, Democratic strategist Paul Begala defended the president’s roster of surrogates, giving shout-outs to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; head of the Council of Economic Advisors, Christina Romer; the OMB chief, Peter Orszag; and Vice President Joe Biden.
“There are many horses in the stable, but there’s only one Secretariat, O.K.?” said Mr. Begala. “There’s no one like him. I will become worried in a year or so if they continue this pace.”
“He is the Secretariat of his administration,” said political consultant and adviser-to-many-presidents David Gergen. “But you don’t want to work out Secretariat and put him in a race every day. You need to bring other horses to the track.”
Right. So who is up to being ridden hard and put away wet by the cable-news jockeys?
“Ideally you’d have a figure with credibility, authority, a strong track record and the political skills for the job,” Mr. Shields of PBS told The Observer. “Somebody like a James Baker or a George Mitchell. There isn’t anybody like that right now.”
“It’s obvious that Geithner’s rollout has been painfully public and publicly painful,” he added. “The debut was unfortunate. There was a certain deer in the headlights look.”
Mr. Shields said he admired the statesmanship of Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, who now serves on the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. But recent reports have suggested that Mr. Volcker remains somewhat at odds with the president’s inner circle of economic advisers, making him an unlikely candidate for the role.
In the meantime, Mr. Shields advised a trial-and-error approach toward the development of credible surrogates. “Part of the problem is that you have to try people and see what the reaction is,” said Mr. Shields.
David Chalian, the political director of ABC News, preached patience. With time, he told The Observer, the president will stand down and the economic surrogates will stand up.
“The strategy is clear: in these first hundred days of heavy lifting, you go with your best communicator and that’s the president,” said Mr. Chalian. “My guess is you might not see that in your second hundred days. You might see the surrogates more often.”
“But when you’re at 64 percent approval, you’re a pretty popular guy,” he added. “You’re only doing your agenda good by being out there. The country clearly likes him and wants to hear from him.”
Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, pointed out that historically, the quantitatively minded economic gurus who rise to the top of the financial bureaucracy in Washington have often been better at projecting budget estimates than projecting confidence and charisma on live TV.
“I don’t think Robert Rubin ever reached a broad audience,” said Mr. Sabato. “He may have been respected at Wall Street at the time. But these people speak a different language. They speak the language of finance for the elites.”
“Nobody is ever going to connect with Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard,” he added. “Just ask the Harvard faculty. O.K.? He’s a bright guy. He’s better than Geithner on TV. But he doesn’t speak in people’s language. Geithner’s incapable of it.”
The current jumpiness in the markets arguably makes the already tricky job of clearly distilling the White House’s economic policies for a general audience that much more difficult.
Jeff Greenfield, senior political correspondent for CBS News, said that the current crop of would-be economic spokespersons face a particularly hazardous learning curve.
“One guy who worked high up in the Clinton administration once told me that if they didn’t say the exact right formula about the dollar that the markets would think, ‘They’re walking away from the dollar, they’re not confident’—and that would spook the markets,” said Mr. Greenfield. “Now, you’re dealing with this small pesky matter of a potential worldwide economic disaster.”
“No matter how good any surrogate would be, when it comes to a matter like trying to reassure the public and convince them that you know how to get us out of this mess, the president is indispensable,” he added. “There’s too big of a gap between the president and everybody else.”
Nicolle Wallace, the former director of communications for the White House under George W. Bush, told The Observer that finding good surrogates is always a challenge, and success can be fleeting.
During the first term of Mr. Bush’s presidency, she pointed out, the administration was flush with top officials—including Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell—who could speak credibly on the hot topic of the day: national security issues.
“And the inverse proved true in the second term,” Ms. Wallace wrote via email, “when a lack of completely credible messengers on the war—and, later, the economy—crippled our ability to speak over the grumbling from members of our own party, at times.”
But that’s a problem for a second term; Mr. Obama is not there yet.
“I do think that they have not yet developed a set of voices on economic policy, in particular, that can generate confidence,” Mr. Gergen concluded on CNN. “They do need more economic spokesmen.”