WASHINGTON — President Obama nominated White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to lead the Treasury Department on Thursday, saying the unassuming budget wonk would focus on the battles over the federal budget that are likely to consume much of Obama’s second term.
Obama highlighted Lew’s past experience negotiating budget deals, first as an aide to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, then as budget director for President Clinton.
Noting the balanced budgets in the Clinton era, Obama said: “For all the talk out there about deficit reduction, making sure our books are balanced, this is the guy who did it — three times.”
Lew served as Obama’s budget director before coming over to the White House last year to calm one in a series of transition periods in the West Wing. Lew, a longtime Washington aide known for his low profile, is Obama’s fourth chief of staff.
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“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,” Obama said. “And 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.”
The president made only a passing reference to Lew’s other relevant item on his résumé: his three-year tenure as an executive at Citigroup.
The relatively thin experience with Wall Street and markets has left some guessing as to how he might handle Treasury’s increased regulatory role or negotiations over continued economic uncertainty in Europe.
Obama’s remarks made clear that Lew’s top challenge is one closer to home. A year-end budget deal with congressional Republicans set up a f future fights over taxing and spending, debts and deficits, and Treasury will be closely engaged in the negotiations.
Obama said he was confident Lew shared his priorities and a commitment to protecting the social programs Obama has resisted overhauling.
As the face of Obama’s fiscal priorities, Lew has critics. As Obama announced his choice, a handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill said the president was signaling that a big compromise on entitlement spending and deficit reduction would remain elusive.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he would oppose Lew’s nomination. “We need a secretary of Treasury that the American people, the Congress and the world will know is up to the task of getting America on the path to prosperity, not the path to decline. Jack Lew is not that man,” Sessions said.
Still, Lew is considered a far less controversial pick than Obama’s other recent nominees: former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., or Homeland Security adviser John Brennan. And he’s not likely to raise the ire of liberals who bristled at Obama’s selection four years ago of Timothy Geithner, then president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, for the Treasury job.
At the announcement, Obama praised Geithner and credited him with helping to restore stability in the financial markets after the 2008 crisis. “So when the history books are written, Tim Geithner is going to go down as one of our finest secretaries of the Treasury,” Obama said.
The president did admit to one reservation about his personnel decision. Lew’s many-looped signature, which would grace the currency if he’s confirmed, gave him pause, he joked. “When this was highlighted yesterday in the press, I considered rescinding my offer to appoint him. Jack assures us that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency.”