(Editor's note: With President Obama expected to name Jack Lew as Treasury secretary on Thursday, here's a profile in the Nov. 3, 2012 print edition of National Journal.)
Jacob Lew isn’t the most obvious figure to be charged with securing the Obama legacy. The purposefully low-key White House operative is content to work behind the scenes, and he always takes care to speak strictly on behalf of the president. Yet this Jewish son of middle-class parents from Queens, a stranger to President Obama’s Chicago-centric universe, could help cement the way the first African-American president is remembered if Lew can cut a sweeping budget deal in the coming months.
To do that, however, he might have to give ground and trigger what critics may see as the first steps in the dismantling of the modern social-welfare state by allowing Republicans to chip away at the very ideal that has inspired and informed Lew’s public service since the days he learned Washington’s mores at Tip O’Neill’s side.
It’s a lot to ask. But that will be Lew’s job as Obama’s chief of staff, a position that could expire in two months and, with it, his leverage. Should Obama win, Lew is seen as a top contender for Treasury secretary, with the biggest mark against him that he is so highly valued in his current post, Obama might prefer to keep him at the White House. Either way, the task of cutting a “grand bargain” doesn’t grow any easier. If Lew can close a lame-duck compact that somehow chops the deficit, avoids the hated sequester, and largely leaves Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security intact, Obama would be ranked with Presidents Reagan and Clinton, who cut large-scale budget deals that preserved costly entitlements. If he blows it, Lew becomes just another in a long list of aides who couldn’t break the stranglehold of dysfunction that has seized the capital.
With the president’s backing, Lew is determined to not let that happen. And he has no interest in repeating the mistakes of the debt-ceiling standoff. This time, there will be no chats on the Truman Balcony or glasses of Merlot for John Boehner, as took place in 2011 when the GOP House speaker and Obama tried to strike a grand bargain on the budget.
Instead, the administration plans to play hardball in the six weeks after the election. And the White House is looking not just to House Republicans for the contours of the compromise. Under Lew’s direction, the administration instead will reach out to the Senate and to House Democrats to try to build a consensus before dealing too much with the tea party portion of the Republican Party.
At the center of this push will be Lew, a 30-year veteran of budget battles under Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Tall and thin, with Harry Potter-like glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, he looks like a typical Washington technocrat, an image that belies his talent for combat. “He’s like a labor-union negotiator. He’s not going to give you an inch if he doesn’t have to,” says Judd Gregg, the Republican former senator and Budget Committee chairman. “He’s a true believer in the causes.”
By causes, Gregg means Medicare and the rest of the social-safety net. These are the progressive ideals close to Lew’s heart, friends and former colleagues say—and programs he will cut or change only in exchange for an equally big prize: in this case, the Republicans agreeing to more revenue, as Obama has called for from the campaign trail.
Lew has long been mindful of the tension inherent in his task. He has spoken publicly for years about the importance of deficit reduction. Yet he believes that budget cuts must be made with care, using a scalpel rather than a butcher’s knife. “That is the only way to do it,” he said in 2011 in a speech at a conference for a Jewish nonprofit organization. “I describe budgets as a tapestry: When it’s woven together, the picture amounts to our hopes and dreams of a nation.”
THE WHITE HOUSE PLAYBOOK
Lew’s power has grown over less than a year as Obama’s chief of staff—and he already has Republicans dreading a budget confrontation with him. Even as they praise Lew for his command of the facts and deep knowledge of the budget, they complain that he’s too liberal. “The biggest challenge is that the drivers of a lot of the spending are income-support programs and health care programs,” one House GOP staffer says. “Those are the most difficult for him to look at.”
“You don’t have to like someone to be able to cut a deal with him.”—John Podesta, former Clinton chief of staff
Another aide spelled it out more bluntly, saying he doesn’t appreciate Lew’s negotiating style; as then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, Lew often acted behind closed doors in the summer of 2011 as if he knew what the Republicans wanted out of the conversation. The budget chief came across as presumptuous, unlike other top administration officials, this aide said.
People close to the White House dismiss these complaints as sour grapes. “You don’t have to like someone to be able to cut a deal with him. I suspect that most people in the White House don’t like the Republicans, too,” says John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, who led the Obama and Biden transition team in 2008. “I think it’s not actually that relevant.”
This article appears in the November 3, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.