Treasury Department Makes Robust Effort To Repair Image, Acknowledges Messaging Problems

After a year of steadily poor headlines concerning its performance in the economic crisis, the Treasury Department has launched what appears to be a fairly robust effort to repair its image and that of its chief, Secretary Timothy Geithner.

On Monday, four senior department officials, including Geithner, hosted a two-and-a-half hour conversation with roughly 20 new media reporters and bloggers that covered the waterfront of political and economic issues. The session was conducted on the condition that the officials could only be paraphrased. And, even then, names were not to be attached to the paraphrased quote.

The stipulations caused griping among some attendees. But the message, delivered with candidness, was a telling one, echoed from the Secretary on down. Treasury's policies should be judged not only based on what progressives ideally wanted from the administration but also based on the alternative -- what those policies would have been under a Republican administration. The Obama administration may fall short of the former, Geithner and others acknowledged but the officials argued that what the Republicans want and what the industry is demanding would produce a far gloomier outcome.

Earlier that morning two lengthy profiles of the Treasury Secretary were published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic respectively. There too, Geithner was cast (or, perhaps, cast himself) in the role of the humble victim, doing the bidding of the country at the price of personal reputation.

"We saved the economy," he told the New Yorker, "but we kind of lost the public doing it."

After enduring months of criticism, the administration clearly has sensed that the time was ripe to re-launch the image of its economic staff. The department had not done a strong enough job communicating its agenda, one of the top ranking officials conceded on Monday. Too much ground had been ceded to the opposition and private industry. More clarity had to be drawn between what the financial sector wanted and what was good for the public. But the administration's policies -- for all the vilification they endured -- were working, officials stressed, even if the messaging was not.

The question remains whether the public can restore its faith in Treasury after months of disappointment from the progressive base and disparagement from conservative critics. Perhaps, more importantly is whether the department can sell version 2.0.

Speaking alongside the Secretary on Monday, Counselor Gene Sperling, Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions Michael Barr and Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Alan Krueger insisted that on topics ranging from the stimulus to the bailout, from regulatory reform to the foreclosure crisis, the administration had legislated as effectively and as far it could.

The Senate could not have passed a larger economic recovery package than what was proposed, the group said. But the department was committed to further jobs-spurring legislation, even if incrementally. More 20-yard passes as opposed to 80-yard passes, one official explained.

On home ownership, Treasury didn't have the authority to buy up troubled loans on any scale that would make an important market difference. But the White House was now fully embracing a program that would allow homeowners to sell their homes for less than they owe.

On executive compensation, the administration may have been a bit late to act. But they appointed a bulldog in Kenneth Feinberg as a pay czar. And now they were waiting on Congress to pass say-on-pay legislation.

Finally, on the topic of regulatory reform, the administration had learned the lessons from the health care debate, an official stressed. They had written detailed legislative outlines of what they wanted (including an independent consumer protection agency) and were not going to let private industry define the debate. But even then, hurdles stood in the way. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) needs 60 votes to get legislation passed and without Republicans he doesn't have 60 votes, said an official.

I think he is right, the official added, and it's hard to second-guess him on the political calculations.

The message, through it all, was remarkably concise. The ethos of the Secretary and his staff was to think boldly. The goal was to legislate swiftly. But even then, the administration was limited by the institutions with and in which it worked.

For a room full of largely progressive bloggers, the pitch was persuasive but not entirely convincing. As Geithner fielded questions for close to an hour, the conversation continued to revert back to a lack of complimentary aggression in his communication's strategy. The Secretary professed that economics, not politics, was his forte. But even his staff conceded, implicitly, that a lot of their hopes for regulatory reform were pinned on the American public placing pressure on their representatives to act.

We are hoping that anger is enough to push action, said one of the officials, who conceded that as the financial crisis receded further into memory, the tougher it would be to get strong legislation into law.

We are going to be persuasive, said another official. But, sometimes, you may find it is not enough to just passionately believe what you are doing is right.