Last week, President Obama nominated current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to serve as the 76th U.S. secretary of the Treasury — an unusual choice, but the appropriate one.
Why unusual? For the past 10 years, the secretary of the Treasury's public focus has been on the U.S. financial system, first as a source of economic power, and later as a source of economic instability. It was taken as given that the secretary would have an intimate acquaintance with the modern capitalist system; thus, two industrialists, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In the past, this intimacy has come dangerously close to partiality. Could you realistically confront the reality that the industry you have served for decades must fundamentally change? In the post-Occupy era, it is refreshing to see the Obama administration sending the message that the Treasury Department is no longer in thrall to Wall St.
More importantly, the administration is signalling with this choice that they are serious about actually addressing the federal debt, the segment of the Treasury portfolio that has been neglected for the past decade. Lew has the ideal credentials to take on this battle. His intimacy is with the federal budget, after two tenures as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and he has displayed a clear commitment to fiscal discipline.
Obama's critics don't yet understand the importance of this. Larry Kudlow would have preferred Larry Fink of Blackrock, former financier Erskine Bowles, American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, or JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon. If Kudlow has to have a Democrat, then this man (and it's always a man) must at least be a Wall St. insider.
This is also a victory for capable government, vesting leadership in the hands of a career public servant, someone who knows how to combat the bureaucratic in-fighting and who will have the respect of his staff of other career civil servants. He has experience managing a complex organization as chief of staff and experience managing a complex and shrinking budget as deputy secretary of state for Management and Resources.
Lew is not a perfect candidate. He spent time at Citigroup during the Bush administration, so even he is not immune to the draw of Wall St. Yet I am willing to write this off as a learning experience, a necessary evil that gave him some exposure to the industry he will now regulate.
There is also the matter of his signature, a boon to graphologists everywhere, though thankfully he seems willing to compromise. But if the most interesting tidbit about him is that he has a first grader's signature, then he is just the sort of man we want tackling our debt crisis. Boring, perhaps, and a budget geek, but exactly what we need.