WASHINGTON -- Last summer's debt ceiling negotiations demonstrated how political inhibition can often arise even in the face of economic catastrophe. But it also helped define the players with the most clout within both President Barack Obama's administration and the congressional Republican leadership. And in his new book on those negotiations, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward routinely comes back to one such player.
White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew has been an unassuming figure during the Obama years. His media appearances are dull; his presentation is a bit bookworm-ish -- as if Harry Potter grew up and replaced his magic wand with Excel spreadsheets. When he speaks, the tone is usually measured and unemotional.
Behind the scenes, however, Lew has proven to be Obama's most skillful consigliere in matters of political trench warfare. Time and again during the debt ceiling debate, as Republicans attempted to get the administration to bend on top domestic priorities, it was Lew who proved to be a stick in the mud. Then serving as Office of Management and Budget Director, his insistence on playing out the practical impact of those cuts irritated Republicans to no end.
"What is infuriating to Republicans is that no one knows the federal government, the budget, these policies, better than Jack Lew," Kenneth Baer, a former senior adviser to Lew, told The Huffington Post. "Just as I imagine it would be frustrating to hit batting practice off Sandy Koufax."
Below are just a few excerpts from Woodward's book, "The Price of Politics":
[Brett] Loper [House Speaker John Boehner's policy director] found Lew obnoxious. The budget director was doing 75 percent of the talking, lecturing everyone not only about what Obama's policy was, but also why it was superior to the Republicans'.
[Barry] Jackson [Boehner's chief of staff] found Lew's tone disrespectful and dismissive.
Lew was incredulous when he considered the Republican proposal as a whole. The changes they were considering sounded simple. But the speaker's office was laying down general principles and looking to apply them to extremely complex programs. The devil was always in the details.
Boehner was sick of the White House meetings. It was still mostly the president lecturing, he reported to his senior staff. The other annoying factor was Jack Lew, who tried to explain why the Democrats' view of the world was right and the Republicans' wrong.
'Always trying to protect the sacred cows of the left,' Barry Jackson said of Lew, going through Medicare and Medicaid almost line by line while Boehner was just trying to reach some top-line agreement.
[Ohio Governor John] Kasich called [economic adviser Gene] Sperling at the White House, suggesting that he meet with Boehner. Lew, he said, did not know how to get to yes.
Sperling realized it was not a compliment that they wanted him. It essentially meant, 'Lew's being too tough. Can we get Sperling?'
Lew's wonky stubbornness during those negotiations didn't make him a progressive hero. In private caucus meetings, congressional Democrats laced into him for keeping them out of the loop and placing sacred cows on the negotiation table. But it did establish Lew as a true hub of power within the administration, and it showed that he, perhaps more than any other top adviser, had Obama's ear.
"I was in many meetings," Sperling recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post, "where Jack would say, clear as a bell, 'Mr. President, I think we can accept this. I’d have to go through all these little tiny cuts and stuff.' And the president would say, 'Jack ... you know my values. I trust your values.'"
For someone in a position of immense power, Lew remains a difficult figure to pin down philosophically. His youth was spent in New York City where -- as a June 2011 Politico profile noted -- he rallied against the Vietnam War and touted the import of immigration and public housing while serving as the editor of his high school newspaper. At Carleton College, his faculty adviser was Paul Wellstone, then a political scientist and later a famously liberal senator. Lew worked with Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), another unapologetic progressive, before gravitating towards more moderate, establishment ground. He went to work with Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) and then took a job with House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.).
Along the way, his view on D.C. politics changed. "[T]here’s a space in Washington that is not deeply populated, which is a bridge between the highly technical and the political,” he would tell Politico. "[I]f you could be fluent in both worlds and respected enough in both worlds, you could have an opportunity to be a translator and to make a difference."
Those who worked with him during that time period recall a type of pragmatism that seems antiquated today.
"It was a much different world, with a lot of collegiality amongst the Senate and House, the Republicans and Democratic staff people," said Lynn Sutcliffe, chief executive officer of EnergySolve, LLC, who worked with Lew while general counsel of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. "It was the art of the possible, not the art of promoting oneself or your boss' re-election."
Lew's work would prove influential in forging the famed Social Security deal made between O'Neill and Ronald Reagan in 1983. And when he departed the Hill in 1986 to join the lobbying shop that Sutcliffe once helped run, it was an important enough development to merit a small item in The New York Times.
Lew returned to government during the Clinton years, gradually rising to the ranks of OMB Director. He packed in long hours six days a week, taking off every Saturday to observe the Sabbath (he is an Orthodox Jew), honing the type of negotiating acumen that would prove useful for Obama. In talks with House Republicans, Lew would use fluency in economics -- despite not being an economist -- and a mastery of budget details to essentially out-will the president's priorities into legislation.
"What makes him a tough negotiator is not that he can’t get to yes or that he’s some kind of bulldog," Sperling said. "What makes him a tough negotiator is he knows his stuff so well ... He negotiates well by being a master of the detail."
In the Obama administration, Lew has been comfortable working largely in the shadows. His predecessor as OMB Director, Peter Orszag, matched his budget expertise with a sharp media savviness. His two predecessors as chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, were veritable celebrities.
Lew stepped into that position after the high-profile budget and debt ceiling fights of 2011 had passed. But aides and friends stress that he's been handed heavy tasks: not just managing a White House with half of its focus on the reelection campaign, but also restoring damaged relations with congressional Democrats.
"[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid didn't know much of Jack Lew until he started having to deal with him because he couldn’t trust Daley," said Jim Manley, Reid's former top spokesman. But once he did, a strong relationship was established. In a private meeting shortly after the debt ceiling deal was concluded, it was Lew who helped convince attendees that the final legislation wasn't such a bitter pill.
"Democrats soon became comfortable with it because he outlined the blow back or ping pong effect that would occur," Manley said. "He knew his facts cold. And he knows his stuff better than Boehner and just about anyone else on Capitol Hill."
Still, it's tough to tell what type of ideological imprint Lew has had on the administration. Aides credit him and Sperling with scoring major victories during the government shutdown debate in the spring of 2011 and the debt ceiling debate later that summer. House Republicans left the former thinking they'd secured $100 billion in savings, only to discover, upon closer inspection, that it was $32 billion. The $1 trillion sequester included in the debt ceiling deal included defense cuts, while leaving out top Democratic priorities like Medicaid (in one late-stage phone call with Republican aides, Lew screamed down attempts to make that program part of the trigger).
But in each instance, the broader debate was waged on Republican terms: additional stimulus spending took a backseat to deficit reduction. One Lew confidant said that Lew personally views himself as a progressive, despite having a reputation as a Clinton-era, new Democrat budget hawk. Sperling would only describe him as someone who straddles, if not outright ignores, the labels and lines.
"I’ve worked with Jack a large part of my adult life and I mean, he is what you see," he said. "He is very serious about deficit reduction but he operates from core progressive principles. In other words, he is not the type of person who either lets conservatives pressure him into backing down on basic issues of fairness, but on the other hand, he is never beholden to litmus tests from progressive groups that he does not believe are reasonable from a policy context."
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May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 8, 2009: President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 3, 2009: President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 4, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a baby while greeting guests during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 26, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oval Office Chase
July 9, 2012: President Barack Obama runs around his desk in the Oval Office with Sarah Froman, daughter of Nancy Goodman and Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, July 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 13, 2012: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave goodbye to President Shimon Peres of Israel on the North Portico of the White House following the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony and dinner in his honor, June 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
April 23, 2012: President Barack Obama tours the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, and Sara Bloomfield, museum director, April 23, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2012: President Barack Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office, June 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Venus In Transit
April 24, 2012: President Barack Obama stops to view the moon and Venus before boarding Marine One in Boulder, Colo., April 24, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
'Sweet Home Chicago'
Feb. 21, 2012: President Obama joins in singing "Sweet Home Chicago" during the "In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues" concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 20, 2011: "The Obama family was scheduled to tour the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio before dinner one night. But when heavy fog rolled in, they canceled the visit. After dinner, the fog had dissipated somewhat so they decided to make the drive up the mountain. It was quite clear when they arrived and then the fog started to roll back in. I managed to capture this silhouette as they viewed the statute one last time just before departure." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2011: "The top photograph shows the President having a water gun fight with his daughter Sasha on her birthday weekend at Camp David. Unbeknownst to me, David Lienemann captured a similar photo of the Vice President on the very same day." (Official White House Photos by Pete Souza and David Lienemann)
Dec. 11, 2011: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, right, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 14, 2011: President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 11, 2011: "This photograph by Chuck Kennedy has to catch your eye. It shows Guinness Book of World Records holder John Cassidy performing a balloon act for First Lady Michelle Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room following a Let's Move event." (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
June 21, 2011: First Lady Michelle Obama meets with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa at Mandela's home in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
May 29, 2011: President Barack Obama greets Hugh Hills, 85, in front of his home in Joplin, Mo., May 29, 2011. Hills hid in a closet during the tornado, which destroyed the second floor and half the first floor of his house. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 9, 2011: President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 10, 2011: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk towards the White House after observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Arizona shooting, on the South Lawn, Jan. 10, 2011. White House staff joined the President and First Lady for the moment of silence.(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 7, 2011: President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, and members of the Australian and American delegations look up at the presidential seal in the Oval Office ceiling following their bilateral meeting, March 7, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 31, 2010: "The skies opened up on Memorial Day outside of Chicago. When the lightning began, the Secret Service told the President that it was too dangerous to proceed. He took the stage by himself and informed the audience that his speech was canceled and that for everyone's safety, they should return to their busses. Later, he boarded a few of the busses to thank them for attending and apologized for not being able to speak." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 20, 2010: President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 28, 2010: President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf, left, inspect a tar ball as they look at the effect the BP oil spill is having on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 21, 2010: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 31, 2010: President Barack Obama practices his pitching form with personal aide Reggie Love and Jake Levine in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 31, 2010. The President threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of the baseball season prior to the game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Feb. 1, 2009: "During a Super Bowl watching party in the White House theatre, the President and First Lady join their guests in watching one of the TV commercials in 3D." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
March 15, 2009: "The Obama family was introduced to a prospective family dog at a secret greet on a Sunday. After spending about an hour with him, the family decided he was the one. Here, the dog ran alongside the President in an East Wing hallway. The dog returned to his trainer while the Obama's embarked on their first international trip. I had to keep these photos secret until a few weeks later, when the dog was brought 'home' to the White House and introduced to the world as Bo." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Moment Of Reflection
Jan. 20, 2009: "President-elect Barack Obama was about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol, he took one last look at his appearance in the mirror." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 19, 2009: "Snowball in hand, the President chases Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the White House colonnade. To escape, Rahm ran through the Rose Garden, which unfortunately for him, was knee-deep in snow." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 10, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal for the first time at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 16, 2010: "President Obama had called on the two former Presidents to help with the situation in Haiti. During their public remarks in the Rose Garden, President Clinton had said about President Bush, 'I've already figured out how I can get him to do some things that he didn't sign on for.' Later, back in the Oval, President Bush is jokingly asking President Clinton what were those things he had in mind." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama watches as members of the National Naval Medical Center's Marine Wounded Warrior basketball team play on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Shoot The J
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama takes a shot during a game with Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Aug. 16, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Aug. 16, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
April 21, 2009: President Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy walk down the South Lawn sidewalk at the White House April 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 10, 2009: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
July 13, 2009: President Barack Obama feigns a punch while talking about health care reform with Nancy-Ann DeParle, Peter Orszag, Phil Schiliro and Larry Summers in the Outer Oval Office, July 13, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 26, 2009: President Barack Obama jokingly reacts to news that staffer Nora Becker will be leaving to pursue a joint MD and PhD in healthcare economics, during the White House staff picnic on the South Lawn, June 26, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 2, 2009: President Barack Obama and former First Lady Nancy Reagan walk side-by-side through Center Hall in the White House, June 2, 2009. To the left of Mrs. Reagan hangs her official White House portrait as First Lady. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts a story to President Barack Obama, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, outside the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: President Barack Obama tours the Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza (left) and the Pyramid of Khafre, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Behind The Camera
Feb. 18, 2009: President Barack Obama takes aim with a photographer's camera backstage prior to remarks about providing mortgage payment relief for responsible homeowners at Dobson High School, Mesa, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 21, 2009: President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office for his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. His Personal Aide Reggie Love stands nearby. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)