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Why Obama tapped Jacob Lew as new budget director

If confirmed, Jacob Lew will replace Peter Orszag, the highest-level Obama administration departure yet. Mr. Lew also served as budget director under President Clinton.

By Staff writer / July 13, 2010

President Obama announces his nominee for Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew Tuesday at the White House.

Jim Young/Reuters

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Washington

President Obama has nominated Jacob Lew, budget director in the last three years of President Clinton’s tenure, to return to his old job.

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If confirmed as expected, Mr. Lew will replace the outgoing director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Peter Orszag, the highest-level departure from the Obama administration thus far. Mr. Orszag leaves his post later this month.

In announcing the selection of Lew on Tuesday, Obama touted the strong economy over which he presided, particularly the budget surplus.

“If there was a hall of fame for budget directors, then Jack Lew surely would have earned a place for his service in that role under President Clinton, when he helped balance the federal budget after years of deficits,” Obama said in his midday announcement at the White House. “When Jack left that post at the end of the Clinton administration, he handed the next administration a record $236-billion budget surplus.”

Lew walks into starkly different circumstances. Even though the nation is technically out of recession, unemployment appears stuck at near 10 percent and the Treasury is spilling red ink. For the first nine months of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the deficit stood at $1 trillion. According to a Congressional Budget Office report released in June, the national debt – currently more than $13 trillion – is projected to rise to 62 percent of gross domestic product, up from 40 percent at the end of 2008.

As he often does when discussing the economy, Obama referenced the dire circumstances he inherited from the previous administration.

“When we walked through the doors of the White House, we not only faced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we also faced a $1.3 trillion deficit – a deficit that was caused both by the recession and nearly a decade of not paying for key policies and programs,” Obama said.

Obama also used the address to applaud news that three Republican senators have agreed to support financial regulatory reform, which means the legislation is on its way toward final passage.

Lew currently serves as chief operating officer of the State Department, and has a long record of service in both the public and private sectors, as well as in academia. Before joining the State Department, he was managing director of Citi Alternative Investments and before that, at Citi Global Wealth Management. From 2001 to 2006, Lew was chief operating officer of New York University, and also a professor of public administration.

Before his tenure at OMB under President Clinton, both as director and deputy director, he helped design Americorps, the national service program. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Lew was a partner at Washington law firm Van Ness, Feldman. His career began as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, including eight years working for House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill.

In his remarks, Obama joked about taking Lew away from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I was actually worried that Hillary would not let him go,” Obama said. “I had to trade a number of No. 1 draft picks to get Jack back at OMB.”

But the economic and political straits in which Obama finds himself are no joke. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows public approval of his handling of the economy has dropped seven points in just a month, from 50 percent of Americans in June to 43 percent in July. Fifty-four percent now disapprove of his handling of the economy, a new high.

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