Thursday, January 28, 2010

Public Opinion and the Treasury

Ezra Klein has what I consider a fairly odd argument up this morning, sort of calling for the head of Tim Geithner:
What I don't understand -- forgive me, Brad DeLong -- is the argument for keeping Geithner much beyond this point. It's true that whoever served in that chair during the worst of the banking crisis is going to be a compromised figure. That makes the public service they provided all the more laudable, and all the more valuable. History will likely judge Geithner very well. But he's a less effective official today because he has so little public credibility. Just as you needed someone who was willing to be unpopular to do the unpopular things, you might well need someone popular who can manage the transition to doing the popular things.
Really?  I can't find any direct questions about Geithner's popularity or lack thereof, but my guess is that few Americans have any idea who Tim Geithner is, let alone dislike him.  Now, it's true that Americans will report a negative feeling about "bailouts," but I'd be surprised if very many people associate bailouts with Geithner in particular. 

Now, high-information, very attentive Americans certainly know who Geithner is.  Only a minority of them are relevant to the question of Geithner's compromised popularity, however.  Republicans, remember, are going to oppose any Obama Treasury Secretary, while moderate Democrats and blind Obama supporters are probably happy with Geithner right now.  That leaves one group, the critical left.  They don't like Geithner...but are they really likely to support any plausible replacement?

More to the point: does it really matter if people don't like the Treasury Secretary?  I don't think so.  It does matter if elites (on Wall Streat, at the Fed, in Congress) trust the Secretary of the Treasury.  If he loses their confidence, then he would have to go.  But even there, I don't think they need to like him. And of course it matters a lot if Obama himself loses confidence in Geithner, but that's not what Ezra is talking about.

On the more broad question of whether letting Geithner go would help or hurt Obama's popularity, to the extent that it would matter at all I think it would hurt.  Even if it's true that some of the things that Obama did in his first year on the economy are to remain unpopular, it seems to me that it would not be in Obama's interest to portray those things as mistakes.  Keeping the team that put the plan together sends the message that what he did was unpopular but necessary; letting them go implies that he was going in the wrong direction.  Again, I don't think this sort of thing has nearly as much importance as, well, whether the policies actually work or not, but to the extent it matters for public relations purposes, I'd say the thing to do is to keep the economic team intact.

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