WASHINGTON — President Obama nominated White House Chief of Staff Jacob J. Lew to lead the Treasury Department on Thursday, saying the longtime Washington operator and unassuming budget wonk would focus on the battles over the federal budget that are likely to consume the much of Obama’s second term.
In brief remarks in the East Room, Obama highlighted Lew’s past experience negotiating budget deals, first as an aide to Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and 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 early 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.
“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 resume — his three-year tenure as an executive at Citigroup Inc. 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.
But 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 series of 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.
Describing Lew, who is an orthodox Jew, Obama said, “Most importantly, as the son of a Polish immigrant, a man of deep and devout faith, Jack knows that every number on a page, every dollar we budget, every decision we make has to be an expression of who we wish to be as a nation, our values.”
As the face of Obama’s fiscal priorities, Lew has critics. As Obama announced his choice, a handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill argued the president was signaling that a big compromise on entitlement spending and deficit reduction would remain elusive.
“As the country struggles with a painfully slow economic recovery, Washington needs leaders who are willing to support reforms that will put us on a sustainable fiscal path,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “It virtually guarantees the president will not compromise on entitlement reform, and assures that the White House will fight to maintain the status quo of our deeply dysfunctional system.”
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said the change at Treasury “won’t improve our economy or save our nation from impending bankruptcy.”
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 for top posts-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’s work and ethos-captured in the motto “no peacocks, no jerks, no whiners,” Obama said.
The president credited Geithner 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,” Obama said.