A decade later, the three officials who helped pull the U.S. out of the financial crisis now struggle with the choices they made, particularly considering that the public still sees the moves as a bailout for Wall Street.
Speaking Wednesday during a forum in Washington, D.C., former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner reflected on the daunting events before, during and after the crisis.
The three spoke during a forum at the Brookings Institution in a talk moderated by CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin, who wrote "Too Big to Fail," a chronicle of the crisis told from the inside of those who experienced it first-hand.
"We stepped in before the banks had collapsed and we did some things to fix the financial system which are very hard to explain because they are objectionable things," Paulson said. "In the United States of America there's a fundamental sense of fairness that the American people have. ... You don't want to reward the arsonist."
However, they said doing nothing would have caused the economy to capsize. They acknowledged that some of the terms were distasteful, but they were necessary given the options at hand. Programs like the Troubled Asset Relief Program pumped money back into banks and restored liquidity to the system.
While they believe the actions were essential, the former officials also recognized the areas where they failed. Paramount among those failures was the inability to save Lehman Brothers, whose collapse Sept. 15, 2008, intensified a crisis that began six months earlier with the failure and bailout of Bear Stearns.
"We thought it was going to be bad, and it was bad," said Geithner, who would go on to serve as Treasury secretary under President Barack Obama. "It was much worse than we thought, than we envisioned. It was a good lesson."