Dr. Christina Romer is the chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Her comments yesterday morning on Meet the Press left me rather unsettled about the administration’s readiness to handle this crisis, because I sincerely want the economy to recover as soon as possible.
But seriously, should you believe a Republican who says a rapid recovery is what he truly wants, when you know that he secretly hopes the recovery will be delayed just long enough to ensure that Barack Obama gets blamed for the crisis and the Democrats suffer a major setback in the 2010 elections?
Well, I certainly admit to wishing ill to the President’s approval ratings and hoping for a big GOP win in the next elections. But my personal financial interest in a rapid recovery is so strong that the prospect of extensive schadenfreude is hardly enough to change my mind. I think a lot of middle and upper-middle class Republicans are in the same position. We’ve lost 30-40% of our net worth because of the stock market plunge, throwing our financial health into disarray. Personally, I’ve been forced to reconsider what kind of house I can afford once I go on the market later this year.
Forgive the extensive quotation, but I think it’s worth looking closely at what Romer had to say about why Tim Geithner is still alone at Treasury, without a single significant deputy confirmed to support him:
MR. GREGORY: The president’s economic team has come under some criticism, namely Treasury Secretary Geithner, for not install–instilling a great deal of confidence with regard to plans to shore up the financial system. And one of those areas focuses on something that you would think would be simple but apparently it’s not, and that’s staffing the Treasury Department. This is how the AP reports on it on March 5th: “Critics say part of the problem is that Geithner is flying solo: Not one of his top 17 deputies has been … confirmed. And without senior leadership, lower-level Treasury employees can’t make decisions or represent the government in crucial conversations with banks and others.” If you go to Treasury’s Web site, your own Web site, under the heading of “senior Treasury officials” there’s one name on there, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary. If this is an economic war, isn’t this akin to going to war without an army?
DR. ROMER: So I think we need to be clear that there are certainly people there, he has brought in people. They’re obviously–not, not a large number of them are confirmed. I think I don’t like the, the reference to the, the Fed–the, the Treasury staff unable to do anything. There is a huge professional career staff. And if you think of what most of the work we’re having to do, or the, the nuts and bolts, getting all of these programs that we’re putting into place right, it’s that career staff that’s absolutely crucial.
MR. GREGORY: Right. But Paul, Paul Volcker and other top economic advisers said it’s shameful that these people are not in place, his top officials are not in place. You say the people–the career people–I’ve certainly talked to people who are in the Treasury Department who say the people responsible for communicating with Wall Street, for doing that nuts and bolts work are simply not there, it’s all falling on the Treasury secretary. It’s not as if this administration didn’t see these problems coming back prior to taking office. Why wasn’t this a priority, getting these people in place?
DR. ROMER: I mean, it absolutely is a priority. And then another thing, I do a little historical reference here, which is if you look at how many people we’ve gotten into senior positions in this administration, it’s really very high in comparison, even at the Treasury.
MR. GREGORY: But we’re talking…
DR. ROMER: I think that’s the, the numbers I have…
MR. GREGORY: Really? What’s the historical parallel when you don’t have any of your top people that you’ve nominated in the Treasury Department serving during the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression? [Emphasis added]
DR. ROMER: I mean, you’re absolutely right that this, this is a very serious crisis and we certainly, you know, need all, all hands on deck. The Treasury secretary is working as hard as he can to get those people into place.
MR. GREGORY: Is part of the problem that the administration or, or the more political advisers in the administration don’t want people from Wall Street, don’t want people who are experienced, because they think they’re tainted?
DR. ROMER: No, of course not. We want–right? We want the best people to be dealing with things, and…
MR. GREGORY: Right. So what’s the problem? Where are they? You just had four people withdraw their nomination, including, including Rodge Cohen, who is one of the most senior people on Wall Street as a lawyer with Sullivan & Cromwell, who’s advised all of these, all of these banks, and now he’s pulled out.
DR. ROMER: I think one thing to realize, the–that the Obama administration is doing business in a different way. And we do have very strict rules on, you know, sort of the, the kinds of vetting requirements and whether you can have been a lobbyist and things like that. And it does tie your hands on some of the people you can hire. But we think the, the administration has made the decision it’s worth it to have honesty and accountability and, and a sense of confidence for the American people.
Some of Romer’s weak excuses can be cast aside as talking points she obviously doesn’t believe. It’s always nice to praise the career civil servants who staff our government, but no one really thinks they can make and implement major decisions without guidance from politically-appointed senior executives.
In contrast, I think Romer’s talking point about “honesty and accountability” says a little more about what’s really going. What she’s basically saying is that the vetting process has hit a wall. The first half of the story is about the “strict rules” for political appointments that Romer mentioned. The second half is about the nomination fiascos (Daschle, Richardson, Gregg, etc.) that undermined the administration’s confidence that it could move quickly while playing by its own strict rules.
Weighed down by the pressure not to have another one of its nominations become a fiasco, the administration seems to have lost sight of priority #1, putting together a team to fix the economy.