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Geithner on the Populist Backlash

There's an interesting back-and-forth between Dan Gross and Tim Geithner in Newsweek's year-end interview issue:

GROSS: There have been, and continue to be, calls for you to go. How do you deal with those?

GEITHNER: I spent most of my professional life in this building. Watching the politics of the things we did in the past financial crises in Mexico and Asia had a powerful effect on me. The surveys were 9-to-1 against almost everything that helped contain the damage. And I watched exceptionally capable people just get killed in the court of public opinion as they defended those policies on the Hill. This is a necessary part of the office, certainly in financial crises. I think this really says something important about the president, not about me. The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they're necessary to do and better than the alternatives. ...

This is a theme I wrote about in my profile of Larry Summers earlier this year. I don't think you can underestimate the extent to which the financial crises in Mexico and Asia were a formative experience for the Obama economic team--especially in shaping their thinking on the intersection of politics and economic policy.

In his memoir, then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who both men worked for at the time, summed up his views on the Mexican crisis by citing "the difficulties our political processes have in dealing effectively with issues that involve technical complexities, shorter-term cost to achieve longer-term gain, incomplete information and uncertain outcomes, opportunities for political advantage, and inadequate understanding." Obviously, these same difficulties made a big impression on Geithner and Summers, too. So they were more prepared than most for the political backlash this time around, even if the intensity may have surprised even them on occasion.