Still, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for a man who could potentially oversee a huge deficit-reduction plan with market implications, rewrite the tax code, or, God forbid, formulate a response to a financial crisis like the one that plunged the U.S. into the Great Recession.
Lew’s friends and former colleagues respond that he’s a government pro—fast approaching the status of Washington wise man, as personified by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or James Baker, who headed both Treasury and State and served as chief of staff to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “Having Lew on your team is the equivalent, as a coach, of having the luxury of putting someone at almost any position on the team and knowing he will do well,” says Daschle, the former House member and Senate majority leader.
If Lew became Treasury secretary, members of the business sector and political observers say, it would send two messages from the administration to Wall Street and the financial community. First, that they don’t have an ally or one of their own in Washington. Second, that the White House intends to keep close watch over tax policy and international financial decisions.
The choice would make the Treasury job an extension of the White House’s economic team. “And [appointing] Jack Lew suggests that [Obama] is going to continue to be the principal economic spokesperson because Jack Lew is not Mr. Outside. He’s Mr. Inside,” says Rothkopf, the former Clinton official.
Only two of the 42 people interviewed for this story broached the idea of Lew’s next step if Obama loses. Both said that Lew would happily return to his hometown. “He has paid a price financially and in terms of energy for the roles that he has filled during these years,” Weiss said. “I’m not reflecting anything that he said to me, but it would not be shocking if he felt completed.”
The only other person who has worked with Lew closely and who brought up an alternative ending was Daley. “I could see Jack wanting to go home and have a different life,” Daley said in mid-October, just a few days before Obama’s race with Republican Mitt Romney tightened into a dead heat. “Jack is not somebody who longs for the attention of Washington, or the approval of the Washington chattering class, even though he respects them.”
It’s a wild idea to imagine a three-decade career shifting so quickly, when Lew has spent so much time cultivating goodwill, trust, and relationships within D.C.’s power networks of lawmakers, congressional staffers, budget experts, think-tank vice presidents, former colleagues, and presidents.
Come Wednesday morning, Lew will either be one of the most powerful nonelected men in the federal government who will help to lead the future of major spending and tax policy for the next decade, or he’ll be a figurehead, a dean of past budget deals, plotting an escape and heading north toward home.
This article appeared in print as “The New Wise Man.”
This article appears in the Nov. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal.