Geithner's missed opportunity

October 18, 2010: 9:18 PM ET

Why can't Obama officials acknowledge that insulting the business community is counterproductive?

U.S. Secretary Timothy Geithner spoke Monday afternoon in Silicon Valley in an unusually friendly setting, far from Washington, D.C., and being questioned by the polite, witty billionaire and former journalist Michael Moritz. He might have used his appearance in front of the Commonwealth Club in Palo Alto, Calif., to convince the business community that the Obama administration is simpatico. He said as much, even evoking that famous Republic Calvin Coolidge in assuring his audience that President Obama understands that "the business of America is business."

But Geithner wasn't convincing. He is articulate, even warm, obviously intelligent and quick on his feet. But he doesn't stray far from his script, which perhaps is what one would expect -- and even want -- from the finance minister of what is still the world's largest economy.

Here's the bit that was particularly disappointing. When Moritz, who humbly identifies himself as a "member" of Sequoia Capital, asked Geithner to address the perception that the administration is anti-business, Geithner was ready. "I'm aware of that perception," he said, identifying the vilifying rhetoric in Washington, D.C., as one explanation for that perception. Yet when Moritz pressed him, asking if he thought it was helpful for the president to refer last year to bankers as a bunch of "fat cats," Geithner went off on a vilifying tangent. "No human," he joked, would look at the financial crisis of 2008 and conclude that business or political leaders had done an adequate job. Their mistakes were "catastrophic," he said.

Yet this misses the point. Moritz offered Geithner an opportunity to make a mea culpa, to  acknowledge that insulting the business community is counterproductive. Voters may like such talk, but that hasn't worked too well for the president. Business people downright hate it, and there's no point in calling people names when everyone knows the names are accurate anyway.

To be fair, Geithner did talk up the administration's R&D tax credits and, appropriately, the need to address structural reforms to address the "scars" from a very real crisis. I believe this administration isn't anti-business, but I'm not the one who needs convincing.

People who follow this sort of thing seemed to be impressed by Geithner's comments about a "strong dollar," which I find laughable. All Treasury Secretaries talk about a strong dollar. This Treasury and its friends at the Fed have done nothing to strengthen the dollar -- and rightly so. Thank goodness.

Geithner did let slip a little truthiness. Asked what the right level of gas tax the country should impose he said, "I'm the wrong guy to ask." After a moment of reflection he added: "And it's the wrong time to ask me."

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Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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