According to Sam Stein members the Treasury Department, including Tim Geithner himself, met with a group of progressive bloggers yesterday to tell them what a good job the administration's done all things considered, but that now they need to get the voters all charged up to help them pass a tepid financial reform bill. This is part of a larger public relations offensive to rehabilitate Geithner and the Obama economic policies:
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. I continue to be somewhat surprised at the attitude I find among the cognoscenti about what is expected from the activist wing of the party. From what I gather, the base is assumed to be trained seals who will clap and do tricks on command but placidly accept the blame when things go wrong. And it upsets the serious people greatly when it fails to do that. In other words, the base is the party's doormat.
"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.
The problem is that in a polarized political world, intensity matters. And I hate to tell the Democrats, but the Republican base has it and theirs doesn't. You can browbeat the rank and file all you want, you can exhort them to support things because it's "the best you can do" but I think that most people who study human behavior would say that this is not a very good way to motivate large numbers of people to do something. If what you need is a bunch of energetic, engaged citizens, hectoring and nagging them about their "duty" or patronizingly explaining to them like a bunch of children why they should be cheerleading something they don't feel invested in, probably isn't going to get the job done. I'm sure that's very frustrating, but it's a grievous mistake to believe the only people you have to patiently and consistently persuade to donate, work and vote for you are elites ans swing voters because the rubes are locked down with nowhere else to go.
More importantly, the best and the brightest saying that everyone should just trust them is about the worst message I can imagine right now. As a progressive type who respects expertise, I even used to buy that to a certain extent. But since I have now been alive long enough to see these so-called experts delude, double deal and disillusion more times than I can count, I'm not willing to suspend my own judgment anymore. And I would guess that in this economic environment the Democratic base has gone beyond the "trust but verify" stage to the "I'll believe it when I see it" stage as well.
As Andrew Leonard wrote in this piece for Salon about the Geithner campaign:
Geithner is making the case that he did what was best for the larger economy without regard to the political (or personal) cost. That he made the hard choice, not the easy one.
That's a questionable statement on many levels. Wouldn't the hard choice be going all in on real reform, rather than tinkering at the edges? Wouldn't the hard choice be demanding more accountability from the banks whose bacon got saved, rather than worrying endlessly about how investors, and marketers, would react to any harsh move?
Geithner faces an unresolvable dilemma. He's an elitist in a populist era. We heard exactly the same kind of we know what's best rhetoric on the topics of deregulation and financial sector innovation -- often delivered by men who were Geithner's mentors. There's less patience right now, on both the left and the right, for government rationalizations than I can ever remember seeing. I'm no particular fan of Old Testament justice, but my guess is that having been denied satisfaction from the current administration, the people will wreak some of their own justice at the polls in November.
I hope that's not true, because justice is not likely to be what we get, at least in the larger sense of the word. But the major critique is correct. Having Geithner and company "reach out" and tell people that they must understand that they did their best despite fierce opposition, and did it the hard way, just doesn't ring true when you consider the huge Democratic majority they were given. If they couldn't fight off the moneyed interests and the Republicans with that, then what hope do we have of ever changing anything? This message is demoralizing, not inspiring. (And it isn't exactly true, as we all know ....)
It is clear that they believe that a nice Barack Obama speech and a lively messaging campaign will do the trick , but they'd better wake up. The trained seals are not responding to that anymore. In fact, they are looking a lot more like killer whales at the moment and some respect for their power should probably be paid.
Update: Atrios was at the Treasury meeting and had some interesting impressions.