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Obama Taps Chief of Staff Jack Lew to Be Next Treasury Secretary

January 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jack Lew has been White House chief of staff and budget director, and, as Jeffrey Brown reports, is now in line to become the center of President Obama's economic team as Treasury Secretary. Judy Woodruff talks to Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg News and Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

JEFFREY BROWN:  As unemployment, growth and budget concerns continue, the man who will lead President Obama’s new economic team was formally nominated today.  The announcement came this afternoon, the latest in a series of major Cabinet changes.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  One reason Jack has been so effective in this town is because he is a low-key guy who prefers to surround himself with policy experts, rather than television cameras.

JEFFREY BROWN:  With that, the president introduced his nominee to be the next secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew, the man he made his chief of staff a year ago yesterday.  Lew would succeed Tim Geithner, who drew fulsome praise from the president.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  When the history books are written, Tim Geithner’s going to go down as one of our finest secretaries of the Treasury.  Our economy is better positioned for tomorrow than most of those other countries hit by the financial crisis.  The tough decisions Tim made and carried out deserve a lot of credit for that.

JEFFREY BROWN:  At 57, Jack Lew is already a 30-year veteran of Washington.  He was a principal domestic policy adviser to House Speaker Tip O’Neill in the 1980s, and negotiated with the Reagan White House on Social Security and tax reform.  Later, he served two stints as the country’s budget director, first under President Clinton, then under President Obama, before becoming White House chief of staff.

Today, in the East Room of the White House, the nominee voiced his gratitude.

JACK LEW, Treasury Secretary-Designate:  And thank you, Mr. President, for your trust, your confidence and friendship.  Serving in your administration has allowed me to live out those values my parents instilled in me.  And I look forward to continuing with the challenges ahead.

[Lew] has a lot of people he's worked with over the years up there who recognize him as someone they can deal with. This is a man who remembers this word 'compromise.' And I got news for you, we can't move forward without that. JARED BERNSTEIN, Former Chief Economist to Vice President Biden

JEFFREY BROWN:  Lew and other top administration officials face the immediate task of negotiating with Republicans on raising the national debt ceiling and agreeing on major spending cuts.  Some Republicans have complained that Lew has been unyielding in past negotiations.  But the president said this today:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Over the years, he’s built a reputation as a master of policy who can work with members of both parties and forge principled compromises.

JEFFREY BROWN:  The announcement came a day after Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced she’s stepping down after four years on the job.

Solis was the first Hispanic woman to serve in a top Cabinet position. And she’s the latest of several high-profile women to depart, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Along with the president’s earlier nominations for State, the Pentagon and the CIA, that’s raised questions about a loss of diversity in the Cabinet.  But, yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president’s record on diversity should speak for itself.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary:  I mean, the increase in the representation of women in senior positions is dramatic.  It’s consistent with or greater than President Clinton’s staff as well.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Whatever the criticisms, the Lew nomination is an early favorite to win Senate confirmation.  There’s no word yet on when his confirmation hearings will begin.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  For a closer look at Jack Lew and what his selection says about the president’s economic agenda, we turn to two guests who have followed his career.

Jared Bernstein worked with him in the White House as the economic adviser to Vice President Biden.  And Julianna Goldman, White House reporter for Bloomberg News, has long reported on his role.

And we thank you both for joining us.

Julianna, to you first.  You wrote a fascinating profile today about Jack Lew.  And at one point, you describe him as the president’s consummate aide.  What did you mean by that?

JULIANNA GOLDMAN, Bloomberg News:  Well, Judy, he really is one of the president’s most trusted advisers.  He encapsulates the no — the idea of no-drama Obama.

He’s a tough negotiator.  He’s pragmatic and he’s been around Washington, as we have just heard, for the last 40-some years.  He’s one of the preeminent budget experts in this town and has had a seat at the table for some of the biggest budget fights over the last three decades.

And so the president wanted to have somebody at the Treasury who he was very close to and who was going to be armed for the fiscal fights ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  You — at one point in your profile today, you quote David Plouffe, the special — or senior adviser to the president, saying Lew has a quiet ferocity to him.  And then you cite an incident during the 2011 debt limit fight with the Republicans.

JULIANNA GOLDMAN:  Yes, that’s right.  It was sort of the 11th hour of negotiations.

And Lew was one of the — he came up with the idea of the sequester and at the last minute Republicans came back and said they wanted to attach Medicaid cuts to the automatic spending cuts that would be in place if they weren’t able to come up with a long-term fiscal solution that we now know is the sequester.

And Lew, he hadn’t slept in days.  He was on speakerphone and he sort of yelled, no, we’re not doing that.  And he hung up the phone on the Republicans, and ultimately those Medicaid cuts weren’t included.  But also telling about Jack Lew, he was pretty embarrassed by the incident because for him that kind of rare outburst was something that you don’t often see from him.

Other people who were in the room said that for Jack Lew that’s angry, but it’s not necessarily how other people display their anger.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Jared Bernstein, what’s he like to work with?

JARED BERNSTEIN, Former Chief Economist to Vice President Joe Biden:  Very insightful, deep knowledge of fiscal matters.

He’s been working, as you heard, on budgetary issues for about three decades.  And these are issues that get more and more complicated.  But Jack keeps that all in his head.  Extremely good listener, a very reasonable person, but one of the things you always hear — it reminded me in listening to Julianna — one of the — a constant in my work with Jack and his career has been a recognition that one of the important roles of government is to protect economically vulnerable people.

You heard it there in that Medicaid story, but you could say the same thing about protecting the social safety net, about Medicare.  Now, this is not a guy who won’t put spending cuts on the table, who won’t even entertain — he’s a guy who would entertain cuts to entitlements, but they have got to be structured in such a way that protect economically vulnerable retirees, people who have been hurt by recession, folks who need the safety net, people who have been hurt by income inequality, deep values held by Jack Lew.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Julianna, if he’s prepared to entertain cuts to entitlement programs, the programs that are the social programs, Social Security and Medicare, why are Republicans already being critical, Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, saying he doesn’t want to see him confirmed?

JULIANNA GOLDMAN:  Because their criticisms is less about Jack Lew the individual and what Jack Lew has stood for historically in his career and more about this administration’s fiscal policy.

And you can expect to see that these confirmation hearings will be a proxy for the looming debt ceiling debate and other debates going forward about the administration’s fiscal plans.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Jared, what overall does this choice say about what the president’s priorities are when it comes to the economy?

JARED BERNSTEIN:  Well, I think it says two things.

I think one is that the president wants Jack Lew there for these upcoming fiscal deadline debates, the sequestration, the debt ceiling, things like that.  He knows that Jack is not just a tough negotiator.  And I think this next point has gotten mixed in some of the reviews over the last few hours.  He’s also a very successful negotiator.

I know that Republicans are complaining because he took a tough line back in 2011 with a lot of Tea Party folks, but in fact he’s been closing deals for 30 years.

The second thing is Jack understands what it means — and very important part of the president’s second-term agenda — he understands what it means to get our debt on a sustainable trajectory.  There’s a lot that has to happen for that to occur.  We have gotten a good chunk of the way there, but in order to kind of complete the deal so that our debt stabilizes over the budget window, that’s something that Jack Lew knows how to do.

And I think the president wants a treasury secretary with that on his agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Julianna, it’s been pointed out by Republicans and others that his experience on Wall Street and the business community is minimal.  He only spent a few years.  Most of his life, his adult life has been in Washington.  What does the White House think about that?  Do they view that as a strength?  Are they concerned?

JULIANNA GOLDMAN:  Well, they have definitely been hearing from top business executives that it’s a concern that he doesn’t have particularly the international financial experience that Tim Geithner has, so to deal with Europe and to deal with China.

And so that’s something where you could look to see a deputy named who would have that kind of experience to fill that void.  But on the other hand, it does send a signal to the Europeans, to other countries around the globe that the president does want to see somebody who does have that sense of fiscal discipline and a budget expertise as the United States confronts the looming spending fights.

JARED BERNSTEIN:  Well, look, I think all of that is very much a part of his job and important, but one thing that I think needs to happen and soon that’s right in the treasury — new treasury secretary’s bailiwick is to do the financial reform that is part of implementing the Dodd-Frank legislation.

The next treasury secretary must implement those rules in such a way as to provide the oversight, the regulation that our financial markets have lacked for so many years.  And if we don’t do that, we will be right back in the soup sooner than later.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And do you believe Jack Lew is the person to do that?

JARED BERNSTEIN:  I think Jack Lew will be a very effective regulator.

I think we have to see going forward is just how tough he’s going to be as a financial market regulator.  I have hopes for him, but that’s a bit of an unknown at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Julianna, there has also been — from the — that is a concern.  And the concern expressed one hears from the left, that not enough focus on creating jobs, there’s a lot of focus on cutting, on fiscal stringency.

What about that angle of this appointment?

JULIANNA GOLDMAN:  Well, one of the things you hear from administration officials — and the president said it today — is that for Jack Lew, all the numbers have people behind them.

And so, of course, you have got budgetary issues, the regulation implementing Dodd-Frank that Jared was just talking about.  But of course confronting unemployment is going to be a top priority.  And Jack Lew, as the president said in my reporting, he’s a man of deep faith.  And that’s definitely something that will motivate him and that he will be able to apply to the unemployment crisis that this country is still facing.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Let me ask both of you, do you expect he will have a difficult time with confirmation, Jared?

JARED BERNSTEIN:  It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but I think he will be confirmed.

He has a lot of people he’s worked with over the years up there who recognize him as someone they can deal with.  This is a man who remembers this word ‘compromise.’  And I got news for you, we can’t move forward without that.  And Jack knows that.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Julianna, what’s the White House saying about that?

JULIANNA GOLDMAN:  Well, it’s not going to be as smooth as they would have liked, but Jack Lew, his issues with Republicans are more on the House side and less on the Senate side.

But the confirmation hearings won’t be as smooth, but they are not going to be as difficult as, say, for defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Julianna Goldman with Bloomberg News, Jared Bernstein, we thank you both for joining us.