Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Thursday it's "deeply unfair" that some financial institutions that got taxpayer-paid bailouts are emerging in better shape from the recession than millions of ordinary Americans.
He acknowledged public outrage over that and said people watched with disdain as Washington protected high-risk banks and investment houses, even as the national unemployment rate was soaring to double-digit levels for the first time in a generation.
But in a "TODAY" show interview, Geithner also argued that President Barack Obama had no choice when confronted with a financial crisis.
"As the president has said, we had to do some very unpopular things," Geithner said. "People looked at what had happened."
"It's not fair. It's deeply unfair," he said. "He (Obama) had to decide whether he was going to act to fix it or stand back ... and that would have been calamitous for the American economy."
The government eventually embarked on a program of assisting the threatened financial institutions, and the sweeping, multibillion-dollar Troubled Asset Relief Program created as a bailout engine.
Geithner also said that administration officials are "very worried" about recovering the more than 8 million jobs lost in the recession. But he noted that business growth has been improving and expects the economy "is going to start creating jobs again."
The secretary agreed that the national jobless rate — now at 9.7 percent — is "still terribly high and is going to stay unacceptably high for a very long time" because of the damage caused by the recession.
"Just because this was the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," Geithner said, "a huge amount of damage was done to businesses and families across the country ... and it's going to take us a long time to heal that damage. "
More than 11 million people now are drawing unemployment insurance benefits, and the overall jobless rate of 9.7 percent understates the true level of economic misery because many people who give up looking for work are no longer in the official count of the unemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday will release a report on conditions in the labor markets in March.
A report Thursday said that initial claims for unemployment benefits fell slightly last week as the recovering economy moves closer to generating more jobs. The Labor Department said new jobless benefit claims dropped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 439,000, nearly matching analysts' estimates. It's the fourth drop in five weeks.
Geithner said he hopes skeptical voters will note legislation moving through Congress to bring reforms to the financial system.
"What happened in our country should never happen again," he said. "People were paid for taking enormous risks. It was a crazy way to run a financial system." Geithner said, "It's the government's job ... to do a better job of restraining that kind of risk-taking."