Lew’s faith inspires his liberal instincts and his desire to protect programs for the poor and needy. As Weiss explains, Judaism is about deeds. “It’s about how you act. It is part of what instills in him a sense of responsibility to others.”
His even keel is one of the reasons Lew is one of the few outsiders to have become such a trusted player within Obama’s tight inner circle. The president, himself known for his “no drama” style, puts a premium on that trait in those he works with most closely. “He’s the classic kind of successful Obama staffer: He’s loyal, he keeps his head down, he’s not a headline grabber, he works behind the scenes and is very good at keeping the drama to a minimum,” says David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official.
Lew is Obama’s third chief of staff in less than four years. His immediate predecessor, William Daley, a Commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, brought ties with the business community that the White House felt could be helpful in its outreach to the corporate sector. Daley also had a rapport with Boehner, something that was seen as a plus as the administration began the budget talks with the GOP in 2011. Despite sharing Chicago roots with the president, Daley ultimately did not gel as well as Lew has with Team Obama, and he left at the beginning of the year.
Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, also a Chicagoan, wielded huge clout within the administration, but his intense, profanity-laced style sometimes created a frenetic West Wing atmosphere.
Unlike Emanuel, Lew rarely raises his voice. In negotiations, he takes time to listen to everyone, and, as one senior Democratic congressional aide put it, he never thinks about the way legislation will affect the Democratic Party’s fundraising. “There are no Rahm stories about Jack. I defy you to find one. He is not a bully,” says Alice Rivlin, a predecessor of Lew’s at OMB who has also held various other senior policy jobs, including head of the Congressional Budget Office and former vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board.
Nor is Lew a media distraction like former Budget Director Peter Orszag, a health care wunderkind known for his geeky-chic glasses, his outspoken stance on the federal budget, and his busy and complicated love life that garnered almost as many headlines as the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Lew’s seasoning in budget policy includes his work on the 1997 balanced-budget agreement that cut Medicare and taxes in exchange for the creation of the children’s health insurance program. That was the country’s last big deficit-reduction plan. Since then,he has kept up his close ties on Capitol Hill, broadening his former network of House Democrats to include Republicans and Senate Democrats.
But for all of the talk of Lew’s commitment to protecting the vulnerable, friends and former colleagues say he is also a pragmatist who understands that to save programs, you sometimes have to alter them.
“Jack believes that government is a positive force in ensuring that we help people that need help, but also he is old school in that he believes in order for the country to work, you have to create compromise,” says Hoyer, the veteran Maryland Democrat. “He is not ideologically stuck. That is an important aspect in building confidence in those who do not agree with Obama.”
KEYS TO THE TREASURY
Lew will undoubtedly play a major role if Obama wins a second term, but it’s unclear which chair he’ll occupy. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said he plans to leave Washington when Obama’s first term ends, creating a highly coveted Cabinet opening. Lew is considered a front-runner, with the thinking that Obama might appoint him shortly after the election to reassure the markets about continuity of fiscal policy, but that Lew would remain in the White House post for budget negotiations until confirmation. Former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles is also mentioned as a contender for Treasury, as is Laurence Fink, the chief executive at money-management firm BlackRock.
One potential argument against Lew is that despite his stint at Citigroup, he does not have the deep ties on Wall Street that some of his predecessors have had. But in the wake of the financial crisis, that credential might not carry as much weight as it once did. Lew has had a shot at a top Treasury job before. He talked with Geithner about a deputy position during 2008, Podesta says, but ended up at State instead.
Members of the financial community describe Lew as a budget wonk whose intelligence and responsiveness to phone calls is appreciated. Still, he’s not one of them—nor does he have an outsized public persona like former Treasury chiefs Henry Paulson Jr., Robert Rubin, and Lawrence Summers. “He’s not viewed as hostile to the business community, like most policymakers are,” says a financial-services industry leader who asked not to be named because of his dealings with the administration. “From an industry standpoint, we could do a heck of a lot worse.”