“F--- the banks,” he said, according to people familiar with the episode.
Geithner is set to step down Friday as Treasury secretary after four enormously consequential years as one of Obama’s top advisers — and, as that four-letter epithet suggests, a deeply paradoxical figure in American government.
Lawmakers, the news media and even some White House officials have caricatured him as a former banker, but Geithner has spent nearly his entire career in public service, and his friends note that he lives a life of unusual modesty. Former government watchdogs say he pursued generous bailouts for Wall Street and not for everyday Americans, but economists say rescuing the financial system averted another Great Depression and saved millions of jobs. Critics insist he sought to protect Wall Street’s reckless business model, but bankers and his allies alike agree he often ignored the positions of the financial industry in writing the legislation cracking down on risky behavior.
In an interview, Geithner, 51, said the gap between his public image and the reality is a consequence of the actions, which seem unfair, that must be taken to protect a country from a financial crisis.
“To save an economy from a failing financial system, you have to do things that are going to be fundamentally impossible to explain to people,” he said. “You’re going to look like you’re giving money to people who were responsible for burning down the economy.”
Geithner is leaving after six years in the limelight, first as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then as Treasury secretary. He is most associated with the financial bailouts of 2008 and 2009. But he also helped oversee passage of the Dodd-Frank rewrite of Wall Street regulations, played a key role in the White House’s rocky pursuit of a deal with Republicans to tame the national debt and worked aggressively to help stem the European financial crisis.
Over this period, aside from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, no American carried as much responsibility for the state of the national and global economy. His experience in that crucible — the most uncertain and perilous in generations — offers a glimpse into the life of a man who long believed he knew what to do in the face of crisis, even as he sometimes struggled to grapple with the political and public demands of doing it.
“Tim’s natural approach to things is very smart, but a little bit irritating at points,” said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who has observed Geithner’s role in Europe. “He’s very quick, and he does things very promptly. He doesn’t take no for an answer. The result of that is for people who do not operate as quickly as he does, he can be a little bit irritating.”