Lew landed his job in the speaker’s office through a connection. His roommate and friend Ari Weiss hired him as a policy staffer for the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which, in those days, oversaw appropriations, the federal budget, taxes, and health care spending. The joke was that they were two young Jewish guys adrift in a sea of Irish pols. Lew had not set out to become a budget expert, but he ended up as one. “Budgets are places with details. Inescapably, you can’t put a budget together on slogans. It appealed to Jack and his nature and his talents because it is something that is essential,” Weiss says.
Soon Lew grasped the power inherent in the budgeting and appropriations process. All government money and financial decisions flowed through this legislation. It was a chance for him to apply his analytical skills and make a difference in people’s lives by protecting programs for the poor and the working class. He hews faithfully to this stance—always insisting that politicians and staffers understand the impact of the cuts or program changes they propose.
“Having Lew on your team is the equivalent ... of putting someone at almost any position and knowing he’ll do well.”—Former Sen. Tom Daschle
The young aide bonded with O’Neill over these shared values. “No one understood better than my father what these policies meant to people,” says Christopher (Kip) O’Neill, a D.C. lawyer and the late speaker’s son. “Growing up within public service himself and the Depression, my father knew how important a job was and is—and how much a helping hand at certain times gave people dignity in their lives.”
Lew also learned from O’Neill the importance of tending to relationships on Capitol Hill in paving the way to compromise. With his affable manner, Lew would try to parse out where lawmakers and their aides stood just before a negotiation, without giving up too much up about O’Neill’s own position. Many of the young members that Lew got to know during that time—Rep. Henry Waxman, then-Rep. Tom Daschle, or Rep. Steny Hoyer—still hold influence. Though Lew had a gravitas about him unusual for a twentysomething, he could dryly poke fun at himself to break up the seriousness of deep policy talks.
In 1983, the Democratic speaker and Reagan hammered out a deal to keep Social Security solvent. The moment was informative and instructive for Lew. The final legislation raised payroll taxes and cut benefits. But, ultimately, the deal’s success lay in the sales pitch. Democrats called it a tax increase, while the Republicans deemed it a benefit cut, yielding a win for everyone.
That negotiation taught Lew the imperative of allowing both sides to find something that allowed them to stay true to their principles, without embarrassing anyone. “Jack understands the importance of the win-win,” says Ken Duberstein, a former top aide to Reagan. “He understands that getting more than 50 percent of what you want is victory, not a defeat.”
Lew has carried these lessons through a career in which he has served as OMB director under two presidents; executive vice president and chief operating officer at New York University; chief operating officer of one of Citigroup’s investment units; No. 2 to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and now, one of President Obama’s closest advisers.
Although Lew is in some ways the ultimate Beltway insider, he’s a New Yorker at heart. His father, a Polish immigrant, was a lawyer and ran a mail-order rare-book business on the side. His mother was an office manager who had finished high school at 15 and immediately went to work to help her family during the Depression.
Lew, 57, is a graduate of Harvard University, but before that he attended public schools in Queens, where he has said he sported long hair and wore boots and ripped jeans. He wrote for his high school paper and thought he would crusade against the world’s injustice by becoming a journalist, as he recounted in a 2011 speech at his alma mater, Forest Hills High School. Instead, he caught the political bug early on and landed in government.
Lew is devoted to his family. He married Ruth Schwartz, his high school sweetheart, and they travel back and forth between an apartment in Washington and a house in Riverdale, an upscale neighborhood in the Bronx. Friends say Schwartz is as low key as her husband.
Lew has two grown children as well as a baby grandson whom he has brought to the White House to meet the president. His son, Danny, lives in New York City, while his daughter, nicknamed Shoshi, lives in D.C. and has followed in her father’s footsteps. She attended Harvard as an undergraduate and worked in the Office of Management and Budget and the White House as a senior policy adviser on energy issues before moving to her current job at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, a move she made once Lew took over at the White House.
Faith is another guiding force in Lew’s life. An Orthodox Jew, he tries to observe the Sabbath. This means forgoing work, cars, phone calls, and other technology from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, hardly an easy commitment for a man who has answered to two presidents. The full day of respite from a bruising Washington schedule helps him maintain his characteristic calm, friends say.