Geithner himself has said he might not be the right guy to oversee negotiations over tax and spending policies, telling the New Republic last year that “you want somebody in this job who can bridge the political world in a different way than I can.”
But there Geithner was Thursday on Capitol Hill, heading into critical meetings with the Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, Obama’s choice to be the senior negotiator on behalf of the White House in discussions about averting the “fiscal cliff.”
Geithner plans to step down in January, and the fact that Obama has selected him to lead the negotiations shows how much the president has come to rely on his much-maligned Treasury secretary. Geithner has overcome early struggles and frequent criticism to become someone both Republicans and Democrats want to work with.
“I think he’s thoughtful. He’s deliberate. He’s well-respected by all parties. And he’s someone who understands all the different pieces of this very complex puzzle,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who met with Geithner on Thursday. “He’s got sort of a panoramic view of the political landscape.”
Republicans, who earlier said they appreciated Geithner’s role in fiscal policy discussions over the past year, said Thursday they were frustrated with the path he took. In meetings, Geithner reprised White House proposals to significantly raise taxes on the wealthy while launching a round of economic stimulus.
People close to Geithner and to the White House say he was chosen to lead the discussions because he can make clear for Republicans what Obama will and won’t accept, while at the same time be frank with Democrats about the need to make concessions on entitlements, such as Medicare.
Geithner has been able to rehabilitate his reputation with both parties over the past two years. According to some Republicans, he’s market-savvy, willing to make a deal and supportive of aggressive action to slow government borrowing. Democrats, meanwhile, say they have come to appreciate how strongly he defends the social safety net — for instance, Medicare and Medicaid — and how willing he is to spar publicly with Republicans.
Through a spokeswoman, Geithner declined to comment.
To a degree, the choice of Geithner to oversee the “cliff” talks is more stylistic than substantive. The details of a deal are being negotiated on a daily basis by White House and congressional staff members, and Geithner was accompanied in his meetings Thursday by Rob Nabors, Obama’s chief legislative liaison. Other key members of the team include White House chief of staff Jack Lew, National Economic Council director Gene Sperling and Sperling’s deputy, Jason Furman.