There are many arguments against confirming current White House chief of staff Jack Lew as the new secretary of the Treasury. Not least of which is that his signature looks like this:
Given our profligate spending and devil-may-care attitude about deficits the world is already more than a little skittish about the value of our currency. It’s not going to engender much respect when you have that, uh, loopy thing, plastered over every dollar. As Jon Stewart joked, “the only way you’re allowed to have that as your signature is if your name is boi-oi-oi-oing.”
Jokes aside, the Lew pick reveals a troubling dynamic for President Obama’s second term. Lew is a consummate career bureaucrat. His résumé reads like a who’s who of lefty thinkers. From getting his entry into politics through progressive icon Paul Wellstone, to spending eight years with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill where he worked alongside partisan blowhard Chris Matthews, to Bill Clinton’s OMB Director and later Hillary Clinton’s deputy secretary of state. This is as partisan a history as it gets.
The one time Lew did try to dip his toe into the private sector he stumbled right into a controversy. In 2008 he served as Citigroup’s chief operating officer of the “Alternative Investments Unit.” As the Washington Post reports:
“[That] unit that housed many of the bank’s riskiest operations, including its hedge funds and private equity investments. Massive losses in that unit helped drive Citigroup into the arms of the federal government, which bailed out the bank with $45 billion in taxpayer money that year.
. . . “The mismanagement of risk was comprehensive at that organization,” said Simon Johnson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
In a separate story the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein also notes, “The AI unit is the precise sort of operation that the Volcker rule should, if properly implemented, render illegal.
A leader who is incapable of managing risks and made the types of financial bets he’ll now be in charge of deeming illegal? Sounds like the perfect candidate.
But in the words of all great infomercials…wait, there’s more!
The coming months and years will bring about several more opportunities for House Republicans and the White House to negotiate a serious plan to reduce the deficit. But after twice getting the rug pulled out from under his feet by President Obama, Speaker Boehner will need something to reset the relationship.
The uber-partisan Lew is just the opposite. As Ezra Klein and Dylan Matthews write, “During the 2011 budget negotiations, Republicans found Lew condescending, inflexible and a bit sneaky. He often seemed to be trying to trick them into agreeing with complicated policies that ultimately redounded to the administration’s benefit.”
According to Bob Woodward the relationship grew so sour that Republicans sent the White House a message: “Please don’t send Jack Lew.” To drive home the point Boehner reportedly told the president “keep him out of here.”
Perhaps that’s just what the White House wants in a second term – a go-to-the-mat, dyed in the wool liberal who will uncompromisingly support President Obama’s positions at the Treasury. But is that what is best for the country? Doubtful. In an era of hyper partisanship, which often manifests itself in brinksmanship, Democrats needs a dealmaker not another dilettante.
And yet here we are. Despite the clear economic and budgetary struggles ahead of us Obama chooses a partisan heavy over a problem solver and a bureaucrat over a businessman. It’s a pick as loopy as Jack Lew’s signature.