EXCLUSIVE: Geithner’s private farewell to Obama and Treasury staff

A man who is ready for a few days at the beach. (Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg News)
A man who is ready for a few days at the beach. (Chip Somodevilla -- Bloomberg News)

Friday is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's last day on the job. As I reported in my  profile of the secretary's tenure, he made his farewell at Treasury last week, with President Obama, Vice President Biden and others in attendance. The remarks were private, but we have obtained a transcript of the event:

"Thank you and thanks for coming to honor the people…the people who work here. And I’m so pleased to see you all today.  You’re so gracious to come.

"Now the President knows, and [he] said this the first time we met, I was not in favor of this idea of returning to the Treasury.  But I am grateful that he asked me to do it and I am grateful that he forced me to stay…really. [laughter]

"And I have loved this work, here in this great building, at these momentous times, with these great people, working for a President I deeply admire.

"And there’s so much I admire about you, about him.  I remember in December of ’08, on I think what was the first conference call with your new team, such as it was, the subject was your hopes and ambitions for the country, and what objectives should define your first term.

"And I said, 'The most important thing would be to prevent a second Great Depression, and you should probably start with that.'  And you reacted quickly—I think, irritated—saying that was not enough for you.  And I thought, 'Fasten your seatbelts.'  But you were right to set your sights so much higher.

"Now, we had our moments, and I know at times, perhaps all the time, you must have been saying to yourself: 'Geithner? What was I thinking?'  [laughter]

"And I remember being in your office in one of those dark days in early 2009, and you asked me, 'This plan of yours…You asked, you said, 'Is it going to work?'  And I said, 'You know, nothing is certain in life,' borrowing a phrase from one of my predecessors, but I knew that our plan was better than any and all of the alternatives before us.

"And you stuck with it, and you were willing to take the political heat, and the country is, in my view, better for it.

"And Mr. Vice President, great privilege to work with you.  Among many things, I admire your ability—I think before almost anybody else—to see politically feasible shape of, you know, what’s possible, and yet to not let that diminish the President’s ambition, not force it to reduce our ambition to the small—to the small and the modest achievement.

"And I loved watching you, in briefings with the economic team, often in disbelief, saying, 'Where did you people come from? And have you ever been exposed to the real world in any way?' [laughter]

"I want to thank the two former Secretaries of the Treasury here today:

"Hank Paulson, who in 2008, did the hardest, bravest piece of the financial rescue, wresting authority from an angry Congress and using it quickly and skillfully and decisively to break the back of the financial panic.

"And Bob Rubin, who left this remarkable legacy of fiscal surpluses and rising incomes—squandered quickly, unfortunately—but a legacy which reminds us of what’s possible for the country.

"You can be lucky in your predecessors in two different ways.  They can leave you a record that’s easily exceeded, or a legacy of accomplishment and judgment and capital that makes all future choices easier.  And my fortune has been of the latter type.

"And without implicating them in any of my decisions, I want to say that I’m so grateful for their counsel, always discreet, supportive—and you cannot believe, no one can know, how valuable it is to be able to call and speak to somebody who’s served in these shoes.

"I am not going to say anything nice about Ben Bernanke, because when I do, it just encourages those who think that we’re too close and that I’ve compromised the independence of the Fed.  [laughter] But he knows what I think.  He’s a hero.  He’s the Buddha of central bankers…but more active.  [laughter]

"Now, next in cabinet rank, my wife, who I love and admire so much.  I don’t know how many of you know this, but Axelrod, David Axelrod, famously based his economic message for the President’s first term on the title of Carole’s book, “If Only.” If only we hadn’t inherited such a mess, if only people understood that it could have been so much worse…[laughter]

"Now I was hired to work in this building by a man named Bill Barreda in August 1988.

"And I learned from a noble and smart and ethical group of civil servants a special code for how to think about economic policy, and I want to describe that to you as a tribute to that tradition here.

"Focus on what’s right, not just what is possible or easy.

"Never forget what a privilege it is to serve your country.

"Know that the world, not just America, depends on the quality of the judgments we make in this building.

"Make sure you steep yourself in what you do not know and what you cannot understand about the world.

"Don’t overdo it with excessive deference to the Secretary of the Treasury, or to the President.  Tell them what you think.

"Understand we do serious work, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

"Cast your net broadly for advice, subject your initial judgments to relentless debate, but don’t let yourself be paralyzed by the difficulty of the choices, the fog, the shades of grey.

"Remember we have to be for stuff—I’m descending into self-caricature.  Remember we have to be for stuff, not just against stuff—the brakes on initiative, but also the accelerator.

"No peacocks, jerks or whiners.

"I’m so grateful for the chance I had to work with all of you here at Treasury.  You are exceptionally talented and dedicated civil servants.  And I’m especially grateful to the women and men who chose to join Treasury and work for this President in this time of crisis.

"It was not easy work.  There was no chance, no risk, of public affirmation or affection.  [laughter]  You were subjected to lots of second guessing and advice, but you persevered, and because of your resolve and your creativity and your ingenuity, our economy is stronger, even with all the challenges we still face.

"And I so much admire you and trust your judgment and value your ideas.  And I’m so grateful for all you did to support me, and to protect me, and to educate me, and help me.

"And those of you from the White House—you’re pretty good too.  [laughter]

"We did some good things together, all while trying to find some humor in the absurdities of this town.

"And we left a lot undone, of course.  And recognizing that, I’m so pleased that the President has asked Jack Lew to come serve in this building.

"Someone said that the country, this country today, now longs for a time when most Americans will, once again, have no idea who the Secretary of the Treasury is.  But Jack won’t have that luxury.  He’ll still face some of the toughest challenges anyone could face in economic policy.  And he will be great at it.

"I walked into this building, as I said, in 1988, a younger man, somewhat younger man, eager to work on issues that matter.  And I leave Treasury so thankful for this opportunity to have worked with such an amazing group of people and grateful to have been part of something consequential, larger than ourselves.

"Thank you so much for coming."

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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