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The Economy? Words Fail Me.

Video
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank sketches Assistant Treasury Secretary Phillip Swagel's briefing on the ailing US economy.Video by Akira Hakuta/washingtonpost.com

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, July 4, 2008

Think you're worried about the economy? Phillip Swagel is a wreck.

The assistant Treasury secretary for economic policy, Swagel came out for his monthly economic briefing yesterday, 90 minutes after the Labor Department reported that the country had shed jobs in June for the sixth straight month.

Does this mean the economy is worse than the Bush administration expected?

"We shouldn't, in a sense, be surprised when the data are, are, soft," Swagel managed to say.

Does the economy need another stimulus package?

"I-it seems, you know, it seems like that's, that's enough, uh, enough."

What might trigger another round of economic stimulus?

"I don't, I guess I don't have an answer, I mean, you know, beyond saying we look at all the data and, um -- so, my usual line."

Okay, so it wasn't a strong performance. But let's cut Swagel some slack. He's a sharp economist (his PhD is from Harvard) and, in ordinary conversation, he suffers none of the speech difficulties that plagued him on the stage yesterday. His various roles in government, at the Council of Economic Advisers, the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund, were too junior for him to deserve any blame for the current economic troubles.

But Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who was in London yesterday, and Swagel's other superiors in the Bush administration left him with an impossible task: appearing on camera to put a favorable and reassuring gloss on an economy that has gone to the dogs.

Yesterday's report that 62,000 jobs were lost brought the total for the first half of the year to 438,000 jobs. Meanwhile, the Institute for Supply Management reported that its measure of the service sector had declined in June. Stock markets, flirting with a bear market, finished another losing week. Oil pushed to a record high. Inflation and foreclosures are up, consumer confidence is down, and administration forecasts for a "strong pace of growth" in the second half of 2008 are look increasingly absurd.

It was a hopeless spin assignment -- but Swagel, the administration's sacrificial lamb for the day, had to try. And so Swagel, bookish and bespectacled, entered the Treasury Department's briefing room with evident trepidation. He nodded and offered smiles every which way. His heavy breathing, picked up by the microphone, could be heard in the back of the room.


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