He ultimately failed to make the case, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The effort illuminated one of the more intriguing relationships in Washington — the evolving rapport between President Obama and his high-wattage secretary of state.
Before he could depart, Geithner had to convince the White House. He needed to find someone who could glide through Senate confirmation, comprehend the growing debt crises, here and abroad, and communicate administration goals in last summer’s debt-ceiling debate to Congress, to Wall Street and to the world.
The talks gained traction inside the White House before being scuttled shortly before the debt-ceiling talks on Capitol Hill intensified, according to one former and two current administration officials.
The Cabinet shuffle made sense, according to the officials, because Clinton could fulfill all those requirements. Plus, she was believed to be ready for a break. She had described in public her travel-heavy job as “grueling.”
Geithner had submitted a list of names to the White House. Chief of Staff William Daley appeared to “slow-walk” and rob the Clinton suggestion of any momentum, according to one of the administration officials. But actually, Daley was conducting his own vetting process, another official said.
He broached the idea with Clinton. An administration official familiar with the exchanges characterized her response as “cautious interest.” A person close to Clinton had a different take: “She listened respectfully and politely.”
Daley called a few trusted eminences on Wall Street, sounding them out on the personnel switch. Their response was resoundingly positive, both officials said. She had never been a banker, but as a senator from New York, Clinton had cultivated many relationships within the financial sector. Some of them had been longing for the kind of attention they had received from her and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, but rarely got from Obama.
And unlike Geithner, who disdained high jinks on Capitol Hill, Clinton had an intuition for political risk. She knew committee chairs. As the debt crisis worsened in the United States and Europe, Clinton’s popularity abroad would have also allowed her to talk sense to other leaders.
Here and overseas, her appointment would have been “a really positive headline,” said one of the officials.
A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department declined to respond to an inquiry on “private recommendations from the secretary to the president.” The White House said it does not comment on internal personnel discussions.
Philippe Reines, a longtime aide of Clinton and current deputy assistant secretary of state, said in an e-mail: “Without getting into private conversations, it’s been crystal clear from her very first day here that Secretary Clinton is fiercely committed to this Department.”