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Jacob Lew, Bill Clinton's Budget Brain, Returning to OMB Helm

5 years ago
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In a message to her staff on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the departure of deputy secretary Jacob "Jack" Lew to become the new director of the Office of Management and Budget "obviously bittersweet." Lew, who previously held the OMB position under President Bill Clinton, is regarded as a talented, level-headed swami of the spreadsheet who oversaw an era of balanced budgets and surpluses -- ending his tenure $237 billion in the black.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied on Thursday that the White House, in hiring Lew, was trying to channel Clinton-era positive mojo for a budget that is presently $1.3 trillion dollars in the hole, saying, "I don't want to leave anybody with the impression that we thought hiring a certain number of people would necessarily bring back the economy of [the late 90s] . . . You're talking about fundamentally a different economy. . . . Ask the Cleveland Cavaliers if personnel alone [guarantees success]. Every team except the Lakers put together a team to win the NBA title, and only one did."

But if basketball can serve as a metaphor for the economy, it's clear that the coach in chief felt Lew was a player who might just carry Team Obama toward a championship. He even said it himself. "You know, if there was a hall of fame for budget directors, then Jack Lew surely would have earned a place for his service in that role under President Clinton," the president said on Wednesday. "I was actually worried that Hillary would not let him go. I had to trade a number of No. 1 draft picks to get Jack back at OMB."

For his part, the player himself, who replaces Peter Orszag, comes widely recommended and is expected to easily win Senate confirmation. Previous to his work at OMB under Clinton, Lew served on the National Security Council, where he worked with then-Director Sandy Berger, who described Lew as "extraordinarily bright" and "very successful." As Berger recounted, "Each year, every agency submits their budgets, which are usually 20 to 30 percent higher than what will fit in the budget. There's an enormous amount at stake for the agencies in these budgets, and Jack had to be the heavy in telling them what would get cut. But everybody always walked away from their meetings [with Lew] having felt that they had a good hearing, and that Jack was very fair. It's a tribute to him."

Berger also noted that Lew was a "very devoted family man" who practices Orthodox Judaism. According its tenets, Lew is prohibited from working on the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to Saturday evening -- making him perhaps the first OMB director to spend money only six days of the week. Berger said Lew's faith never got in the way of fulfilling his duties. "Jack has kids who are in their 20s now," Berger said. "[During the Clinton era] they were much younger, and his family always came first. But he was able to balance the requirements, which was very, very hard -- and he was determined to observe his religious traditions."

Lew will be entering the job faced with an intimidating mandate: as The New York Times reports, "a Treasury Department report in July showed that the government ran up $1 trillion in deficit spending during the first nine months of the fiscal year, down 8 percent from the same period a year ago, but still on pace to finish the year at around $1.3 trillion, the second-highest on record." It's not apparent whether an OMB director with bona fides like Lew will be hamstrung by a 24/6 workweek -- even with an economy like this one -- but Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, questioned whether it even mattered who the OMB director was.

"[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi wrote the stimulus," Norquist said via e-mail, "Reid and Pelosi wrote the health care bill. Reid and Pelosi, [Sen. Chris] Dodd and [Sen. Barney] Frank wrote the bank bill. If the spending cocktail of the last two years was a martini, Obama is the vermouth. A staffer for Obama may be the toothpick stabbing the olive. When the appropriators run the country, who cares who is in the White House? Like the rich dad, they just sign the checks for bills run up by reckless youth."

When pressed as to whether Lew's experience might be a factor in reining in the budget -- even just a little! -- Norquist volleyed back, "Congress is writing the budgets. OMB could be run by Buddhists from University of Chicago and it wouldn't slow down the spending spree."

To which all we'll say is, Coach O has put Lew in at halftime and the team's down by double digits. Here's to hoping for a serious comeback in the third quarter.

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Newt Gingrich and the Republicans are responsible for anything good that came out of the Clinton administration as far as the economy or the budget.

July 17 2010 at 8:24 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Mr. Lew held the OMB position from, 1998 to 2001, Republicans were in the majority these years, in both houses. Gee, I wonder, why he is considered to be successful. Congress held tight budgets. In other words he had a Congress who did the job right along with him. Smart move on Clinton's part.

Now, does anyone really believe that this Congress will be able to have the discipline to do this? I, personally, don't think so, and when he fails, it will be his fault, never the fault of this Congress, they know to much and they like spending your money.

July 17 2010 at 1:12 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to conservgirl8's comment

Supporting 1 party over the other is @ best the 'LESSER of 2 Evils'
... FACT: both parties have SHOWN us there incompetance!! Support NEITHER and Throw out ALL Incumbents!!

July 18 2010 at 2:55 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Gary's Screen

What I want to know is "Where was Grover Norquist when Bush and his cronies ran up an additional 5 trillion and then screwed up the economy so bad his successor and he had to spend another trillion and half to keep the country from going bankrupt. They like their philosophy are bankrupt of ideas.

July 16 2010 at 10:32 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Gary's Screen's comment

People apparently don't like this comment. Could someone please answer the question?

July 17 2010 at 9:00 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I don't know why this author chose Norquist, but at the time Bush was in office, he was doing his own thing. He worked in the Reagan era and the Bush Sr. terms, but after that he was busy doing his own thing. Why would that be of relevance here? He would have had nothing to do with the Bush Administration. This author chose him for his own reasons, nothing more.

July 17 2010 at 10:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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