Jacob Lew, Low-Key Power Broker
When President Obama was locked in painful spending negotiations with House Republicans last spring, his exceedingly meticulous budget director, Jacob J. Lew, went to the Oval Office to propose some complex budget changes. As Mr. Lew delved deeper and deeper into the numbers, Mr. Obama put up his hand, signaling him to stop.
“Jack, it’s fine,” the president said, according to Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s economics adviser, who witnessed the exchange. “I trust your values. I trust your judgment on this.”
Today Mr. Lew is the White House chief of staff (and on the shortlist to become the next Treasury secretary), and Mr. Obama has entrusted him with an even bigger task: guiding the White House through potentially treacherous negotiations with Congressional Republicans to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts on Jan. 1, which economists warn could throw the country back into recession.
An agreement by year’s end could lead to a long-term deficit reduction plan, helping Mr. Obama live up to his promise to bring both parties together and sealing Mr. Lew’s reputation as the master of the Washington budget deal. But if the talks fail, Mr. Obama might be remembered as the president who could not break partisan gridlock in Washington, and Mr. Lew could wind up with a blot on his nearly impeccable record.
“This is a reset moment for the administration and for Jack,” said Tom Daschle, a former Senate Democratic leader. “It’s a window that will close in a few weeks, but it really is an opportunity to start over. Part of the message of the election was ‘You guys have got to work together.’ ”
But Mr. Lew’s last go-round with Republicans, the debt ceiling talks in the summer of 2011, ended uncharacteristically badly. Mr. Lew, still the budget director at the time, irked Speaker John A. Boehner and his staff, who viewed him as an uncompromising know-it-all. Mr. Lew’s defenders call it an aberration.
“I think it’s because Jack knows the numbers, and they couldn’t pull a fast one,” said David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s chief political adviser.