Jacob Lew, the White House's New Budget Romantic


Today, the White House announced that Jacob Lew, currently the United States Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources under Hillary Clinton, will replace Peter Orszag as President Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget. Lew will probably be sold as a politically experienced deficit wrangler, but the picture that emerges from a brief review of his public record is of a dogged budget battler who brings a progressive romantic vision to the sterile business of fiscal prioritizing.

Here's a look at what President Obama likely sees in his newest senior wonk—and what the rest of us should expect:

He sells fiscal discipline as a path to liberal policy goals: In 2000 testimony before Congress, he said: "The fact that we are running a surplus does not mean, however, that fiscal discipline is no longer needed. To the contrary, fiscal discipline is essential to protect Social Security and strengthen Medicare, so that both will be there in the years ahead." Advocates of fiscal restraint might find comfort in the idea of a White House budget director touting the need for fiscal discipline even in times of surplus. But taken as a whole, the quote suggests that Lew's approach very much resembles Orszag's, which at this point ought to be worrying. Orszag, as many will recall, was initially touted as a deficit-conscious centrist. But he successfully sold the administration on the idea that health care reform is entitlement reform—an idea that sounds a lot like Lew's notion that fiscal discipline is a tool for advancing large-scale entitlements—and served as a chief advocate for the so-called fiscal responsibility of ObamaCare.

He's romantic about budgeting: Orszag's press apologists built him a persona defined by nerd-cool. Lew seems like less of a geek and more of a poet. "Budgets aren't books of numbers. They're a tapestry, the fabric, of what we believe." Lew told The New York Times in 1999. "The numbers tell a story, a self-portrait of what we are as a country." So we're spending-crazed entitlement nuts on a path to fiscal catastrophe? Let's not answer that. 

He's a true believer in government power: In the same New York Times piece, Lew said that he believes that "the purpose of power is to get things done," which would seem to inform his stated belief "you [can] make a difference in people's lives through politics."

He's a wartime Consiglieri:
From 1998 until 2001, Lew served as OMB director under Bill Clinton, which means he has experience negotiating fiscal priorities with a Republican-controlled Congress. If the GOP overtakes the House this year, as many expect, that experience will definitely come in handy.

He has experience with health care: From February 1993 through 1994, Lew served as a Special Assistant to President Clinton, and was involved in the president's failed effort to overhaul the nation's health care system. Even if you buy the rosiest assumptions about ObamaCare, managing a trillion dollars in new health care funds will be no small challenge. And, as the CBO has laid out in excruciating detail, the nation's long-term fiscal problem is, in fact, largely a health care cost problem. That means that public health care expenses are likely to dominate America's budget debates for years to come.