Geithner's Insubordination Makes Obama Look Weak

At the height of the financial collapse, Geithner ignored an Obama order

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There are different ways to interpret the news that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner consciously defied President Obama during the height of the financial crisis in 2009. But either way you cut it, it makes the president look weak and ineffective.

The report comes from details leaked to the Associated Press and The New York Times from the forthcoming book Confidence Men by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind. The book says Geithner "ignored an order from President Barack Obama calling for reconstruction of major banks," including "a March 2009 order to consider dissolving banking giant Citigroup while continuing stress tests on banks, which were burdened with toxic mortgage assets." The president does not deny the account but downplays his own reaction to Geithner's actions “Agitated may be too strong a word,” he tells Suskind.

To the Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum, Geithner's behavior constitutes serious insubordination.

That’s a wow. Obama ordered Geithner to draw up a plan to nationalize (or at least seize—the AP’s word is “dissolve”) major banks—Citigroup is the only one named here—and the banks’ man in the White House (one of them, anyway) ignored the president. Instead, Treasury converted its preferred shares in Citigroup into riskier common stock, bailing it out for the third time and preserving the bank’s management, its $2 trillion balance sheet, and its coveted status as too big to fail threat to the global economy.

To Chittum, letting Geithner walk all over him like that leaves the president highly vulnerable to attacks on his competence. "Americans will put up with a lot of things in a politician, but they won’t tolerate weakness," he writes. "If you can’t face down the people on your own team—whom you hired—how are you going to do battle with the powerful interests that oppose you?" To Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, the report is a sign that Obama lost control and his anger at Geithner was probably more intense than reported. "Considering that 'agitated' in Obama would be about like a white hot rage in most people, it suggests that Obama was plenty cheesed off if this is even close to describing his reaction."

Of course, there's another way to interpret Suksind's report: it's the product of spin from the Obama administration. That's what Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism sees in a story she says "does not pass the smell test."

There is plenty of reason to believe that this idea, that Obama “ordered” a Citigroup resolution plan and Geithner ignored it, is just an effort to shift blame for an unpopular pro-bank strategy to Geithner.

Look at the spin: we are supposed to believe Obama wanted to be tougher with the banks and was thwarted by his Geithner. Does that mean we are also supposed to believe that Eric Holder also ignored Obama’s orders to prosecute?

The only problem with this effort at revisionist history is that it is completely out of synch with other actions the Administration took in February and March 2009 that had to have been approved by Obama. And his posture before this supposed Citigroup “decision” and after, has been consistently bank friendly. Obama knew from the example of the Roosevelt administration, which he claimed to have studied in preparing his inaugural address, that the time to undertake any aggressive action was at the very start of his term, in that critical speech. March was far too late to start studying the question of whether to nationalize Citigroup.

If  you, like Smith, buy into this interpretation, than the internal chaos criticisms go out the window. But it brings with it accusations of mistrust, which is what Smith is so riled up about. "It seems unlikely that anyone with experience in an organization would tolerate serious insubordination... Put it another way: one of Obama’s striking characteristic is his shameless lying. While politicians are a famously untrustworthy breed, the magnitude of the gap between Obama’s campaign promises and his conduct is outside the pale." As such, whether it's calculated spin or actual insubordination, it's not a good piece of news for the Obama administration.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.