WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama stood side by side in the East Room of the White House on Thursday with his outgoing Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, and the man he was nominating to replace him, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew.
The men are ordinarily among the least emotive around the White House, yet for 16 minutes on Thursday, as Obama bid farewell to Geithner and formally nominated Lew, there was an unusual spark of emotion.
Obama began with a lengthy soliloquy on Geithner’s value to him and the country. When Geithner reluctantly joined him four years ago, the president said, the financial crisis was burning. But “thanks in large part to his steady hand,” he said, “our economy has been growing again for the past three years.”
On display were bittersweet feelings, embarrassment, jokes and three men who seemed moved by the moment.
“So when the history books are written,” Obama added, “Tim Geithner is going to go down as one of our finest secretaries of the Treasury.” Sustained applause led a blushing Geithner to tilt his head forward, and for a moment Obama and he locked eyes, smiling. “Don’t embarrass him,” the president told the assemblage of administration officials.
Turning to Lew, Obama made clear he was picking him as the next Treasury secretary in part because of his knowledge of the mechanics of federal budgets, but also because of his character.
“I value his friendship. I know very few people with greater integrity,” Obama said. “He’s built a reputation as a master of policy who can work with members of both parties and forge principled compromises.”
Although a few senators raised objections to Lew’s nomination, little broad opposition emerged on Thursday.
“As the son of a Polish immigrant, a man of deep and devout faith,” the president said, “Jack knows that every number on a page, every dollar we budget, every decision we make has to be an expression of who we wish to be as a nation, our values.”
Geithner then spoke, addressing the president directly rather than in the third person, as in his prepared remarks. “The actions you took along with those of a forceful and creative Federal Reserve have made the country stronger and have put us in a much better position to face the many challenges still ahead of us — and they are many,” Geithner said.
Lew spoke of his upbringing in Queens, N.Y., using rich oratory to describe his “dreams of making a difference in the world.”
Afterward, Obama again took to the lectern, and scratching his eye in what seemed a flash of emotion, he ended with a joke that referred to Lew’s now well-publicized illegible signature, which looks like a linked chain of O’s.
“When this was highlighted yesterday in the press, I considered rescinding my offer to appoint him,” Obama said. “Jack assures me that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency should he be confirmed as secretary of the Treasury.”