Inside Man

wallstreetethicCommentary by Margaret Carlson

(Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner never looks so tall as when he’s sitting down. Sketching a diagram about the nation’s banks on a legal pad in Bloomberg Television’s green room this week, he showed he’s at his most impressive when the cameras are off.

Geithner had just finished one of his better interviews, an hour-long sit-down with Charlie Rose in Washington. It proved to be a good setting — Rose’s questions are so long that Geithner looked pithy by comparison.

Here’s Geithner’s problem: He’s an Inside Man. Inside Man has the brain of Einstein and the presence of a flea. Inside Man can’t catch a break in our telegenic age. Even friends are taking after Geithner, from Paul Krugman of the New York Times to Kent Conrad, chairman of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. On March 9, Obama’s friend, Warren Buffett, said the economy has “fallen off a cliff,” and criticized the message about how to save it as “muddled.”

Last weekend Geithner was lampooned on the “Saturday Night Live” TV show. After describing our dire situation, the actor playing Geithner offered $420 billion to the first person to come up with a plan to solve the banking crisis. He fell for the Nigerian prince, offering to send him an immediate down payment.

Geithner was known as a genius when he was at the New York Federal Reserve Board, ground zero for Inside Man. Washington, however, is the sole province of the Outside Man with a larger- than-life demeanor, utter conviction, and immediate solutions. You don’t have to be right to have a long ride here. Outside Men admire — and recommend — each other all the way to the top.

Fierce, Not Bold

Outside Man doesn’t have to come up with bold plans. He just has to be fierce about them. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got sky-high ratings for his televised briefings from the Pentagon and instilled fear in smarter yet quieter Bush administration officials like Condoleezza Rice, not for getting the Iraq War right but for dodging responsibility by waxing poetic over known knowns and known unknowns.

Hank Paulson, playing the football lineman he once was, tried to barrel through a $700 billion giveaway to his pals on Wall Street with no strings attached, on the basis of a three- page proposal. We’re still paying the price for Paulson’s letting the toxic securities stew in their own juices for months by refusing to isolate them in a bad bank or come up with a pricing mechanism.

No Doubt

Doubt is Outside Man’s enemy. CNBC’s Jim Cramer, presently the Obama administration’s most strident critic with a microphone, is funny, quick, entertaining, and frequently wrong as he conveys complete certainty about that which there can be none.

Conducting a carnival of animal, clown and other noises each night with a language only those who belong to the Church of Mad Money can understand, Cramer was a king during the years when the Dow approached 14,000, although he was off on many calls. Recently, he’s been as toxic as the derivatives Paulson left in Geithner’s in-box.

Shortly before Bear Stearns collapsed, Cramer said he believed in the Bear franchise. “At 69 bucks, I’m not giving up on the thing!” he said.

On the network of the Money Honey, which feasts on Geithner’s stumbling performances every day, geniuses extolled the virtues of Lehman Brothers shortly before it went poof.

If you are in favor of doing something to right the sinking ship of the economy (as opposed to the Republican plan of letting it fix itself with a few tax cuts), Geithner’s done nothing worse than express himself poorly and look like Eddie Haskell.

Mumblers, Bumblers

The question remains: Does Geithner need to recover from his halting public presentations and the all-too-accurate imitation on SNL before the economy can?

Fortunately, there is a long history of less-than-great communicators managing to communicate. People get used to mumblers and bumblers like George W. Bush, Barney Frank, John McCain and Al Gore (the communicating comeback of the decade.) Some great communicators — Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, another victim of SNL — don’t make it. Sometimes it’s the steak not the sizzle.

By yesterday, things seemed to be looking up, at least on the financial networks. Charlie Rose may be long-winded but he’s also soothing, and in one hour on his program, Geithner came across as someone on top of the situation. Geithner’s been crucified by the Dow slipping. It helped that the index rallied almost 400 points on Tuesday.

Then There’s Obama

And then there is Geithner’s boss, Barack Obama. Although he has the wordiness of a professor — the classic Inside Man — he has the charisma of an Outside one. Republicans portray the president, with each passing day and every decline in the S&P, as more and more responsible for the current crisis. Yet when Obama spoke to Congress two weeks ago, people told Gallup afterward that they felt more confident. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent said they approve of the job Obama is doing handling the economy.

Geithner wouldn’t sign his bank bailout sketch so I could do my part to stir up economic activity by listing it on EBay. Inside Men don’t make nice, or need to. They’re not running for office, just running to save the world.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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