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.