Speaking to hundreds of Baltimore's business leaders in Harbor East on Thursday morning, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner praised President Barack Obama's handling of the recession and outlined his boss' financial reform wish list, which includes cutting small business taxes and maintaining the federal student loan interest rate.
The quickly organized event, suggested last week to the Greater Baltimore Committee, served as a platform for Geithner to attack presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's economic policies.
"The president did not sit there and hope the fire would burn itself out. He didn't commission a bunch of studies. He didn't try and do the politically careful thing," Geithner said during his 15-minute speech. "He did the hard, tough things … and we're much stronger today as a result of those choices."
Geithner, who has said he does not intend to lead Treasury for more than 4 years, did not limit his praise of the president to economic issues. He also credited Obama for the passage of health care reform and the country's increased use of alternative energy.
He sharply criticized deep cuts to federal spending, which Romney supports.
"A credible strategy for economic growth requires a willingness to do things, not just cut things," he said.
Opinions that the government is adding too quickly to the deficit are overblown, Geithner said. The only expanding areas of federal spending are Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — because of the growing number of retirees, he said.
"You can't repeal the aging population," Geithner quipped.
Some of the 300 people at the breakfast meeting at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel disregarded the political overtones of Geithner's speech.
"I don't feel like I am coming from a political rally," said Morgan State University President David Wilson.
Wilson was pleased that Geithner urged Congress to stop the pending increase to federal student loan interest rates. Many of his university's students rely on financial aid to pay for classes, he said, and doubling rates may close Morgan State's doors to some people.
Geithner also addressed Greece's financial instability and JPMorgan's recent $2 billion loss. Europe's leaders should be able to handle the Greek debt crisis — with the assistance of U.S. liquidity, he said. As for the investment bank's loss, Geithner said it makes a "compelling case" for the bank regulations Obama has already ferried through Congress and may merit the passage of further oversight laws.
Geithner also said that last summer's partisan bickering over raising the debt ceiling — a debate that is about to be repeated — was "a crisis of Congress' making" and should be avoided for the security of the U.S. economy.
"It presented a sober reality," said James D. Fielder Jr., of Harford County. He said his main take-away from Geithner's words is that "there's greater confidence in the United State's ability to respond to financial crises abroad than here at home."
Fielder, state secretary of labor, licensing and regulation from 2003 to 2007, said that he doesn't agree with Geithner's assessment of tax policy. Fielder lost his job in accounting business development after a corporate merger, an experience that, he said, led him to believe that higher taxes — Geithner and Obama support raising taxes on wealthy individuals — can reduce employment opportunities.
Most of the crowd was made up of Greater Baltimore Committee members, though representatives from the offices of Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski were present, as was Gov. Martin O'Malley's chief of staff, Matthew D. Gallagher.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sat at a table front and center and was one of the few people to cheer on the secretary during his speech. She alone clapped when Geithner cited U.S. companies returning jobs to the states.
"The response to today's breakfast was overwhelming," said Don Fry, the committee's president and CEO, in introducing Geithner's address. So many members showed interest in attending that some had to be turned away, he said.
Following his remarks, Geithner toured the Marlin Steel Wire Products facility, in the Lakeland neighborhood of South Baltimore.
Marshal Greenblatt, a member of Marlin's board of directors who led Geithner across the manufacturing floor, said the Treasury secretary wanted to hear about the company's 10-year transformation from a business that made wire bagel baskets to an engineering firm with better-paid workers who produce batches of specially designed wire and sheet metal products.
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