MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Ultimately, it's historians who will judge how Treasury Secretary Paulson has managed to the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. But the experts are already beginning to weigh in. And as NPR's Frank Langfitt learned, the report card so far is mixed.
FRANK LANGFITT: Fans and critics agree on this, Henry Paulson is flexible. Here's the Treasury secretary three weeks ago dismissing the idea of pumping taxpayer money into troubled banks.
Mr. HENRY PAULSON (Treasury Secretary): Putting capital in institutions is about failure.
LANGFITT: But after several weeks of stock market hell and no improvement in the credit markets, Paulson reversed himself on Tuesday.
Mr. PAULSON: Government owning a stake in any private U.S. company is objectionable to most Americans, me included. Yet, the alternative of leaving businesses and consumers without access to financing is totally unacceptable.
Mr. ROBERT LITAN (Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, Brookings Institute): Well, I grade him an A for being an incredibly fast learner.
LANGFITT: That's Robert Litan, he served on the president's council of economic advisers during the Carter administration. Litan says Paulson has shown a striking ability to switch gears in a fast moving crisis.
Mr. LITAN: I think history is going to say that Secretary Paulson was doing new deal kind of experimentation on Internet time. He wasn't waiting the years or the months in between individual experiments like what were conducted in the new deal. He was operating in real time proposing things. When markets rejected and he would turn around and propose something else.
LANGFITT: But where some see dexterity, others see an ad hoc approach. Brian Wesbury is chief economist at First Trust Portfolios, an investment company. He says Paulson's decisions earlier this year to let some companies survive while letting another fall confused investors.
Mr. BRIAN WESBURY (Chief Economist, First Trust Portfolios): It's almost been willy-nilly, is a bad phrase, but it kind of gets to the point of, this one can fail, this one we won't let fail. And when you have that kind of bouncing around, I think it causes a lot more uncertainty.
LANGFITT: Most observers say Paulson has made at least one big mistake, allowing Lehman Brothers to go bankrupt. The collapse rippled through the financial system and triggered the fall of insurance giant AIG. In fairness, many people agreed with the move at the time. They didn't think the government should keep bailing out Wall Street firms. Paulson wasn't available to speak with NPR for this story, but he defended his decision on Lehman yesterday on CNBC.
Mr. PAULSON: We worked very hard on Lehman. You know, Lehman, we all knew about the problem with Lehman for a long time. And Lehman worked, you know, tried to work through their problems. I think regulators knew that, if there was not a solution before they announce the third quarter earnings, there would have to be a problem. It turns out, there wasn't a buyer.
LANGFITT: The response you just heard underscores another criticism of Paulson.
Mr. VINCENT REINHART (Former Chairman, Division of Monetary Affairs, Federal Reserve): He has the bully pulpit, and he's got to communicate better than he has.
LANGFITT: This is Vincent Reinhart. He used to run the Federal Reserve Board's Division of Monetary Affairs. Reinhart says Paulson, a creature of Wall Street, has trouble explaining himself to ordinary people.
Mr. REINHART: Secretary Paulson represents a package, and the package is someone who is used to exercising in authority at the highest levels of corporate finance. That package doesn't include somebody who can be folksy with the person on the street in explaining exactly why it matters.
LANGFITT: But Paulson's ability to talk to Wall Street proved valuable to the country this week. He gathered the heads of America's biggest banks, former colleagues, and told them they were taking government funds whether they liked it or not. In a few hours, all nine CEOs had signed. Most experts who followed this crisis say that was remarkable. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.