If ever a stand in was prepared for a big moment, it was Tony Fratto this week.
When White House press secretary Dana Perino left town earlier this week for a long-planned vacation with her husband, that left Mr. Fratto as the face and voice of the Bush administration for a historic week.
And history got messy Monday, when the House of Representatives rejected the administration’s $700 billion economic rescue plan, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Index plummeting 778 points.
Luckily for Mr. Fratto, and the White House, the 42-year old father of two spent almost six years working at the Treasury Department before coming to the White House in 2006.
Each of the primary White House press secretaries — Mrs. Perino, Mr. Fratto and fellow deputy Scott Stanzel — handle a “portfolio” of issues.
Economics and the markets are Mr. Fratto’s expertise. That, combined with Mr. Fratto’s languid personality, made him a calming presence at the podium this week as the markets bordered on meltdown.
“We all have a great deal of confidence in Tony given his experience and depth of knowledge on financial issues,” Mr. Stanzel said.
A Treasury official said Mr. Fratto “is the right person to have at the podium … having spent eight years in the administration dealing with economic policy and communications.”
After predicting on Monday morning that the bill would pass the House, Mr. Fratto returned to face reporters Tuesday. But he showed no signs of distress.
Mr. Fratto is so laid back that he’s been observed to have actually closed his eyes during a slow summer briefing or two while watching Mrs. Perino parry with reporters.
And Mr. Fratto on Tuesday maintained his relaxed, devil-may-care demeanor.
“A lot of you noted I came here yesterday, stood here and said that I thought we had the votes to pass the legislation yesterday,” he told the White House press corps.
“How did that work out?” someone asked.
“Not so good, and not for the good of the country. But it wasn’t for lack of trying,” Mr. Fratto said.
As the White House tried to regroup, Mr. Fratto spent much of his time trying to persuade the media that they had not thoroughly or properly explained the nature of the economic crisis, and the need for a government fix, to the public.
But Mr. Fratto massaged that message, hitting the media for using the word “bailout” instead of “rescue plan,” but otherwise going to great length to explain the complexity of the issues.
“It is a very, very complicated issue. You know, I could tell you something — something we pay attention to here, in terms of how the markets are faring. You hear us talk about credit markets, right? Well, something we look at is the Libor rate. Well, can anyone — raise your hand if you’re familiar with the Libor rate,” he said.
The reporter for Bloomberg News raised his hand.
“The London Interbank — Bloomberg would know. All right, the London Interbank Overnight Rate. It’s banks lending to banks. That is a critical number,” Mr. Fratto said. “Well, it reached — that spread reached an all-time high last night. Okay? I mean, that is our communications challenge, is to explain why the Libor rate is at all relevant to an American’s ability to get an auto loan, or a small business’ ability to maintain their payroll account at a financial institution. There are a lot of steps between the Libor rate and the homes of Americans. So we obviously have a challenge.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Fratto in one moment showed the depth of his knowledge about complex financial transactions, in an exchange that would have stumped most press secretaries.
“In regards to the temporary suspension of mark-to-market, how do you build confidence if…” a reporter asked before Mr. Fratto cut him off.
“That wasn’t a temporary suspension of mark-to-market. It was a clarification of the guidance on mark-to-market accounting that the SEC made,” Mr. Fratto said.
“The end result, though, is that some financial institutions won’t have to value these assets at mark-to-market,” the reporter said.
Mr. Fratto again came back quickly.
“Actually, they are allowed to consider the impact of distressed markets along with mark-to-market accounting,” he said.
Try explaining that one to a coworker.