The White House has indicated that President Obama plans to name Jack Lew, his chief of staff, to replace Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Lew is a life-time political staffer, who first started working on the Hill in the 1970s. He has spent just a handful of years in the private sector. The Treasury Secretary is the lead figure in the federal government on America’s economic, financial and fiscal policy. Lew is an odd choice for the position.
The Treasury Secretary is the tip of the federal government’s economic spear. One of the three original cabinet positions, it was first filled by Alexander Hamilton. Throughout our nation’s history, it has been filled by individuals with extensive experience in industry or the markets. In the modern political vernacular, it is, in essence, the “private sector czar.”
The position is also something of a financial ambassador to the rest of the world. In an increasingly intertwined, globalized world economy, America’s Treasury Secretary casts a long shadow in London, Brussels, or Beijing. Secretary Geithner had an oddly out-sized role to play during the Eurozone crisis last year. Foreign markets look to the Treasury Secretary as a source of stability in a financially upturned world.
In the face of this, Obama has chosen to appoint the nation’s first apparatchik for the position.
Jack Lew is no doubt a smart and capable man. The many, many years he spent rising through the levels of power in government is commendable in its own right. He has spent two stints as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, under both Presidents Clinton and Obama. This office, which is basically the government’s chief accountant, is a difficult job. But, its principal job is to manage the institution of government. It is tasked with keeping the government’s books in order.
The upcoming debate over Lew’s confirmation will provide insight into how well he did this job. Even if we learn we was a good steward of this, however, the job of the Treasury Secretary is an order of magnitude more challenging. The position is, in many respects, our nation’s “face” on the national economy. Markets across the globe look to the person holding this position for reassurance that America is serious about tackling its economic and fiscal challenges.
Only Obama would have the arrogance to name a life-time political staffer to such a critically important position for the private sector. Lew’s actual experience in the private economy is disturbingly thin. He can certainly navigate the halls of government and can expertly navigate CBO’s other-worldly “baseline budgeting,” but the private sector needs less of that to reignite growth.
It’s an unserious pick for very serious times.