Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Obama's "Lincoln Defense" of Geithner

As Obama continues to channel Lincoln, Timothy Geithner might take some consolation in the intense vilification suffered by Lincoln's second Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

George McClellan, the charismatic general who was a battlefield failure but a brilliant political infighter, blamed his drubbing by Lee in the Seven Days Battles on a lack of troops, as was his wont -- he constantly estimated Lee's troop strength at double its actual number. Stanton was his chief scapegoat, and others piled on. Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the tale in Team of Rivals:
The drumbeat began with McClellan, who told anyone who would listen that Stanton was to blame for the Peninsula defeat. "So you want to know how I feel about Stanton, & what I think of him now?" he wrote Mary Ellen in July. "I think that he is the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew, heard or read of; I think that...had he lived in the time of the Savior, Judas Iscariot would have remained a respected member of the fraternity of the Apostles"...

Democrats, unwilling to fault McClellan, were the loudest in their denunciations of Stanton. Spearheaded by the Blairs, conservatives charged that Stanton had abandoned both his Democratic heritage and his old friendship with McClellan...Democrat John Astor could not refrain from cursing at the mere mention of Stanton's name. "He for one believes, Strong reported, "that Stanton willfully withheld reinforcements from McClellan lest he should make himself too important, politically, by a signal victory"....

The New York Times promised not to engage in the "very fierce crusade" against Stanton, but begged the president, "if we are to have a new Secretary of War, to give us a Soldier--one who knows what war is and how it is to be carried on...If Mr. Stanton is to be removed, the country will be reassured, and the public interest greatly promoted, by making Gen. McClellan his successor. Even those who cavil at his leadership in the field, do not question his mastery in the art of war." As the weeks went by, and the pressure to replace him mounted, Stanton must have wondered how long Lincoln would continue to support him (447-48).
Lincoln's support for his Secretary under duress is famous, and Obama probably has had it in mind while brushing off calls for Geithner's resignation. Kearns Goodwin again:
In fact, not once during the vicious public onslaught against the secretary of war did Lincoln's support for Stanton waver. During the hours he had spent each day awaiting battlefront news in the telegraph office, Lincoln had taken his own measure of his high-strung, passionate secretary of war. He concluded that Stanton's vigorous, hard-driving style was precisely what was needed at this critical juncture...

And as always, the president refused to let a subordinate take the blame for his own decisions. He insisted to Browning "that all that Stanton had done in regard to the army had been authorized by him the President. Three weeks later, Lincoln publicly defended the beleaguered Stanton before an immense Union meeting on the Capital steps...

"I believe there is no precedent for my appearing before you on this occasion," he affably began, "but it is also true that there is no precedent for your being here yourselves." Reminding his audience that he was reluctant to speak unless he might "produce some good by it," Lincoln declared that something needed to be said, and it was "not likely to be better said by some one else," for it was "a matter in which we have heard some other persons blamed for what I did myself." Addressing the charge that Stanton had withheld troops from McClellan, he explained that every possible soldier available had been sent to the general. "The Secretary of War is not to blame for not giving when he had none to give." As the applause began to mount, he continued, "I believe he his a brave and able man, and I stand here, as justice requires me to do, to take upon myself what has been charged on the Secretary of War" (453-454).
Compare Obama's defense of Geithner at another appearance for which "there is no precedent" -- a sitting President's on the Tonight Show on March 20:

MR. LENO: Now, Treasury Secretary Geithner, he seems to be taking a little bit of heat here. How is he holding up with this? He seems like a smart guy --

MR. OBAMA: He is a smart guy and he's a calm and steady guy. I don't think people fully appreciate the plate that was handed him. This guy has not just a banking crisis; he's got the worst recession since the Great Depression, he's got an auto industry on -- that has been on the verge of collapse. We've got to figure out how to coordinate with other countries internationally. He's got to deal with me; he's got to deal with Congress. And he's doing it with grace and good humor. And he understands that he's on the hot seat, but I actually think that he is taking the right steps, and we're going to have our economy back on the move.

MR. LENO: Now, see, I love that it's all his problem. (Laughter.)

MR. OBAMA: No, no, no --

MR. LENO: -- I mean, when he came in you probably said, hey, this is not a problem. Now, it's, hey, you got this, you got that, hey, good luck. (Laughter.)

MR. OBAMA: No, no, but this is the point that I made, I think two days ago, when somebody asked, well, do you have confidence in Tim Geithner. I said, look, I'm the president, so ultimately all this stuff is my responsibility. If I'm not giving him the tools that he needs to make sure that we're moving things forward, then people need to look at me.

On the AIG thing, all these contracts were written well before I took office, but ultimately I'm now the guy who's responsible to fix it. And one of the things that I'm trying to break is a pattern in Washington where everybody is always looking for somebody else to blame. And I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job. I think that we have a big mess on our hands. It's not going to be solved immediately, but it is going to get solved. And the key thing is for everybody just to stay focused on doing the job instead of trying to figure out who you can pass blame on to.

Of course, that Lincoln was right about Stanton doesn't in itself prove that Obama is right about Geithner. The devil can always quote history for his own purposes. But the country, having "taken the measure" of Obama's judgment over the course of two years, may ultimately trust his judgment of character and ability within his own cabinet. The analogy, whatever its limits, does highlight the eternal law that in a crisis, the deputy at the fulcrum of the action bears the brunt of the fury.

It must be said too that Obama fudged his "buck stops here" routine a bit. Lincoln took responsibility for a very specific decision that was being vilified - refusing to send McClellan the troops for which he begged. Obama rolled all recriminations together and took responsibility for all without specifying any single controversial decision -- such as removing from the stimulus a measure that would have precluded paying the AIG bonuses -- as his own.

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