After a one-year 50% drop in the stock market and the fastest, deepest spate of job losses since 1974, Americans have a lot of data to support their sense that the country's economic house is crumbling. The last thing they want to hear is that the man charged with the reclamation project doesn't have a crew ready to start work.
So when news broke late last week that two top nominees for the Treasury Department were withdrawing their names from consideration for undisclosed personal reasons, what ordinarily might have been dismissed as a harmless staffing snafu became the latest cause for unease among those watching Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Geithner who at 47 still looks like the Doogie Howser of economists has had difficulty filling out his roster of lieutenants; he wasn't helped when Paul Volcker, the old lion who got the U.S. out of its last deep recession, described Treasury's staffing woes as "shameful." (See TIME's "25 People to Blame for the Financial Collapse.")
Insiders say the department is about a month behind its expected pace on appointments "I'd love to have all these people in place, but these confirmations take time," admits a senior official. Part of the problem may be that Obama has instituted tougher standards for hiring than previous Administrations had. At some agencies, former lobbyists have had to withdraw from contention because of tougher rules on influence peddlers. But Geithner contributed to the problem himself: after it was discovered that he owed $34,000 in taxes, administration vetters cracked down on any sign of improper tax-filing.
On Sunday the White House unveiled three assistant secretaries for the Senate's consideration, and a new slate that includes replacements for Annette Nazareth and Caroline Atkinson, who withdrew their names for deputy secretary and undersecretary for international affairs, respectively, is apparently on its way. Meanwhile, Treasury officials correctly point out that Geithner is filling out top slots faster than previous Democratic and Republican Administrations did.
But Geithner's biggest problem biggest besides the economy, of course is that any hint of disorder heats up the already simmering public skepticism surrounding him. For many critics, the acknowledgment during his own confirmation process that he failed to pay taxes left two possible conclusions: either Geithner knowingly underpaid, or the man now nominally in charge of the IRS couldn't figure out his own taxes. His first major speech as Treasury Secretary, delivered on Feb. 10 with a focus on how to save America's banks, fell flat in part because he had few details to provide and in part because expectations had been raised by everyone from his aides to the President himself.
In that light, the staffing woes look particularly bad. Treasury isn't empty Ted Truman, a former assistant secretary for international affairs, started last week, and Lee Sachs and Gene Sperling, top officials under Bill Clinton, have been on the job for weeks. But in the midst of an economic crisis, the demands on staff are so great work frequently goes all night and during weekends that a lack of bodies and minds more than looks awful: it's irresponsible.
Geithner's allies say the fastest way for him to ease doubts about his competence is to do what he's been doing: work. His appearances before Congress since the bank speech have been solid, and if those who only heard of him in the past month have a poor impression, those who watched him in his previous job at the New York Fed tend to believe he has the skills to meet the daunting tasks before him.
But the cruel irony of a Treasury Secretary who can't seem to fill important positions in an economy in which millions of people are desperate for jobs will go away only when Geithner is fully staffed.