Why Jack Lew Scares Republicans

Obama's nominee for Treasury Secretary has a passionate, progressive core underneath a nerdy exterior.

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President Obama, left, speaks to the media after nominating Jack Lew to be Treasury Secretary, at the White House in Washington on Jan. 10, 2013.

When push came to shove in the last-minute negotiations between the White House and Republicans to avoid defaulting on U.S. debt in late July 2011, Jack Lew finally lost his cool. “You don’t have to explain this to him, Gene! No! No! No!” Lew shouted at Obama staffer Gene Sperling, who was in the Senate office of a GOP staffer on the Hill and had Lew on speakerphone. The eruption was so surprising, and so emotional, that the Republican staffer hung up on Lew, according to Bob Woodward’s account in The Price of Politics.

The outburst says something important about Lew, whom President Obama has tapped to replace Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury. Wonky, professional and grounded in decades of staff work in the obscure world of Washington budget politics, Lew has a reputation that is decidedly undramatic. Even partisan Republicans have shown respect for Lew’s grasp of the nation’s finances. “No one was more prepared and more in tune with the numbers than Jack Lew,” House majority leader Eric Cantor told Politico in June 2011.

Democrats have turned to Lew for that experience, and the results have been effective, if rarely pyrotechnic. Bill Clinton made him chief of the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s, and Hillary Clinton tapped him to master the State Department’s unruly budget before Obama brought him over to the White House for his second stint in charge of the OMB. Ultimately, Obama made him chief of staff last year.

Beneath his nerdy exterior, Lew is a passionate progressive on the issue of wealth disparity and programs for the poor. In the original Gramm-Rudman-Hollings “sequestration” talks in the mid-1980s, Lew negotiated the exemptions from automatic budget cuts for Medicaid and other low-income programs. In the 1990s, he again defended Medicaid from the budget ax as President Clinton tacked to the center. And his speakerphone outburst in 2011 was in response to the Republican staffer’s suggestion that Medicaid cuts be added to the revivified sequestration process to avoid debt default.

This evident passion for what he sees as the moral dimensions in fiscal and economic policy combined with his expertise in the numbers makes him a formidable opponent as Washington heads into more tough negotiations over the budget. And it explains why Republicans are getting ready for an ugly confirmation fight. Alabama GOP Senator Jeff Sessions wrote a draft statement opposing Lew’s appointment that he will release after Obama formally nominates him that says, “Jack Lew must never be secretary of the Treasury,” according to The Hill’s Alex Bolton.

But Lew is clearly who Obama wants. After the outburst in 2011, Lew went to the Oval Office to brief the President on the confrontation he’d just had with the GOP staffer, Rohit Kumar. Reports Woodward:

Mr. President, I just absolutely blew the idea of Medicaid in the sequester out of the water, he said, and provided the details of his explosion, exactly what he had said.

It was the right thing to do, the president said.

Lew and Kumar soon resumed their conversation. Lew would not give on Medicaid, and Kumar finally dropped the idea.