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Obama’s Treasury Appointment Shows He’s Gearing Up to Pick a Fight

What Jack Lew lacks in financial experience he has in rankling congressional Republicans. UPDATE: Opposition builds

by
Rodrigo Sermeño

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January 10, 2013 - 6:12 am
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WASHINGTON – Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plans to leave his job after the presidential inauguration, opening the door for a new candidate ready to hit the ground running with a fresh round of negotiations with Congress on government spending cuts and the nation’s debt limit.

Geithner, the last holdover from President Obama’s original economic team, has been trying to leave his post for some time. Last time Geithner was in the same predicament, Obama convinced him to stay until the end of his first term, but now Geithner has said he intends to leave his post by the end of January even if the debt ceiling issue has not been resolved. With Geithner’s imminent departure, speculation has begun about his potential successor.

Jack Lew, a former two-time Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director and current chief of staff, reportedly will be nominated to the position by the president at 1:30 p.m. today. Lew was director of the OMB in the Clinton administration and ran Citigroup’s Alternative Investments unit, a proprietary trading group, during George W. Bush’s tenure at the White House. Lew left Wall Street and returned to Washington to serve as deputy secretary of state for management and resources in 2009. He joined the Obama administration as Peter Orzag’s replacement at the OMB in 2010.

Before his stint on Wall Street, Lew helped the Clinton administration negotiate a bipartisan budget deal with congressional Republicans. More recently, a Huffington Post profile of Lew said aides credit him and Gene Sperling with reducing the amount of budget savings sought by Republicans in 2011. During the debt limit talks that year, Lew reportedly irked House Speaker John Boehner’s staff as they found him too disrespectful and dismissive. While Lew did not directly negotiate with Congress on last week’s budget deal, he played an important role supervising the White House strategy and briefing Wall Street executives on the talks.

Although Lew does have some Wall Street experience on his resume, some in the financial industry do not believe that it is enough for the nation’s top finance job. Geithner, as former chairman of the New York Fed, brought to the job deep familiarity with the financial system. His predecessor, Henry M. Paulson, was chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs. Lew’s scant experience with financial markets and global banking regulation could come at a high cost during an international financial crisis.

Nevertheless, Lew’s qualifications as a dealmaker make him an obvious choice for a position that needs someone prepared to face Congress over the debt limit negotiations beginning as soon as next month. Lew is known in Washington as a first-rate negotiator with a deep understanding of federal spending and a person who can make difficult decisions to secure a bipartisan agreement.

“Jack has experience negotiating balanced budgets with a Republican Congress, and he’d bring that to bear on anything he worked on,” said Michael Barr, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions under Obama. In addition, he said that Lew would do a terrific job keeping the nation on the path of financial reform.

During his Senate confirmation hearing for his OMB chairmanship in 2010, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Lew if he thought the deregulation of Wall Street had contributed to the financial crisis. “Senator, I don’t consider myself an expert in some of these aspects of the financial industry,” Lew replied. “My experience in the financial industry has been as a manager, not as an investment adviser.”

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