Geithner, Summers in Good Cop/Bad Cop Routine

Washington Matters

Geithner, Summers in Good Cop/Bad Cop Routine

It may be award season in Hollywood, but in Washington one duo is reprising their starring roles with just as much fanfare. In this plot, however, it's not a small statue but the economy that is at stake. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council head Larry Summers, who first worked together during the Clinton administration, are now trying to fight a formidable recession and rescue a quickly collapsing financial sector. But their vastly differing styles may lend a twist to how the story unfolds.

Back in the 1990's Summers headed Treasury and he inherited Geithner from the previous Bush administration. By then Summers had earned a reputation for being whip smart and letting everyone know about it. His ideas about policy mirror his personality -- the bigger the better. Geithner, meanwhile, is a lot more restrained in both respects. He's known for being a listener and an implementer, perhaps balancing Summers' penchant for using overwhelming force to solve economic problems.

This time around it's Geithner who heads Treasury, but Summers is not taking a supporting role. The pair is now figuring out how to repair bank balance sheets with the remaining bailout money, while stimulating the economy to combat rising joblessness. Summers, who stepped down as head of Harvard not long after making disparaging comments about women, has managed to elevate his standing in the Obama administration without the need for Senate approval. He's giving the president newly created daily economic briefings. He also stood in for Geithner as the public face on the economy while the former head of the New York Federal Reserve laid low during his drawn-out Senate confirmation hearings. By the end of last week Geithner began taking over the reins from his mentor and the two are settling into their routine in an effort to shape economy recovery programs.

The pairing also reflects Obama's habit of surrounding himself with a variety of personalities and solicit a broad range of opinions. So far it's working with difference of opinions being settled quietly and out of view. The emerging dynamic meshes Summers, the big picture idea guy, with Geithner, the implementer. Summers has been working up support for the administration's $800 billion-plus stimulus package while Geithner has been figuring out how to overhaul the second half of the $700 billion rescue fund he helped fashion last fall and looking at ways to more closely regulate the financial industry.

The administration's aim of a two-part solution to help banks -- buying up toxic debt through a "bad bank" and offering guarantees against future losses -- provides a clue that the two are working in tandem. There had been some internal debate among administration officials about picking one plan over the other. Choosing both shows that both Summers and Geithner will have an equally heavy hand in shaping rescue plans.