Tim Geithner is "embattled." Does that mean he'll lose his job?

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March 23 2009 7:21 PM

The "E" Word

Once people start calling you "embattled," is there any way to keep your job?

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Click image to expand.
Timothy Geithner

Regardless of whether he stays, resigns, or is fired, there is universal agreement that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is "embattled." "Embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner's job is safe," the Washington Post reported after President Obama said he would not accept Geithner's resignation. Days earlier, the Huffington Post wrote that John McCain was defending "embattled Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner." News site Raw Story reported that both New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger "stand by the embattled cabinet official." "The Treasury Secretary is now tagged constantly with that hard-won adjective,"declared the Atlantic.

But what does it mean to be embattled, really? And does being embattled necessarily mean you'll lose your job?

Embattled is one of those words that creeps into news reports when a figure reaches a certain threshold of controversy. Neither meaningless nor particularly meaningful, it's a subjective term that, once used, seems to spread on its own until one of three things happens: The person resigns, is cleared of wrongdoing, or simply waits it out.

Normally, the catalyst that gains a person "embattled" status is a call for their resignation. The first time a news report called former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales "embattled" was on March 15, 2007, when then-Sen. John Sununu demanded that Gonzales step down. Sen. Larry Craig first got pegged with the "E" word on Aug. 30, 2007, when Sen. Norm Coleman, Sen. John McCain, and Rep. Pete Hoekstra called for his resignation.

Embattlement can also evolve over time. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was "politically embattled" as early as September 2007, according to the Chicago Tribune, but that instance referred to a legislative fight, not selling seats. By May 2008, he was "increasingly embattled," per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, thanks to his involvement in the Tony Rezko trial. By Dec. 11, when the FBI actually charged him with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery, he was embattled enough that Obama himself called for Blagojevich to quit.

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Nor is being embattled specific to politicians. Larry Summers was "embattled" as president of Harvard for months before he announced that he would step down. University of Alabama basketball coach Mark Gottfried resigned in January after his team's shoddy record qualified him as "embattled." According to London-based site the Inquirer, the entire nation of Britain is embattled.

In the vast majority of cases—we haven't run the numbers, but we're confident about it—being dubbed "embattled" means you're on the way out. It can be fast: Rep. Mark Foley quit on the day his explicit IMs to underage teens emerged. Or it can be slow: Larry Craig sat out his term instead of resigning. Alberto Gonzales waited so long to resign that even Slate's Gonzometer gave up tracking his fall. But however long they hold out, the trajectory of the embattled is almost invariably downward.

Yet sometimes waiting does work. Usually, it's because some structural or constitutional obstacle gets in the way. Sen. Roland Burris' detractors, for example, eventually realized that if he wouldn't leave on his own, they were legally unable to remove him. Other times, the official simply lets the mood pass. Sen. David Vitter went into hiding after his name was found on the phone list of a D.C. prostitution ring. He soon emerged, apologized, and returned to work. (He's up for re-election in 2010.) In these cases, "embattled" soon gives way to "controversial" or, in the best of all worlds, "iconoclastic." When embattled basketball coach Bobby Knight was fired from Indiana University, he took a job at Texas Tech, were he was merely controversial. Now, in retirement, he is almost iconoclastic.

Then there's the rare case where the embattled official does something so popular—or so distracting—that memories of battles past are washed away. President Bill Clinton chose the day of Monica Lewinsky's grand-jury testimony to bomb terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. When he left office, his 65 percent approval rating was the highest of any outgoing president since World War II. Likewise, some have argued that John McCain's crusade for ethics reform has been atonement for past mistakes.

It's unclear which category Geithner falls into. He has a strong defender in Obama, who has popularity to spare. He has not violated any laws. And his resignation would have a high cost, which is to his advantage: If Geithner stepped down under a cloud, that could send investor confidence—and thus the markets—into the ground.

But Geithner may already be recovering, as the announcement of Treasury's "toxic assets" plan on Monday sent the Dow soaring 500 points. (The Krugman, meanwhile, plummeted.) According to the New York Times, "Wall Street gave the government what amounted to a do-over for the administration and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner." It left out a word.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.