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Obama's New Treasury Secretary Pick Should Be Able To Hit Ground Running


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama's second term cabinet is taking shape. We now have nominations for secretaries of defense and state and as early as tomorrow, the president is expected to pick a new Treasury Secretary to replace Tim Geithner who's stepping down. There's been no official word on Geithner's successor, but all signs point to Jacob Lew, who goes by Jack.

He's a two-time budget director who now serves as the president's chief of staff. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now for more on Jack Lew and the challenges he would face in the job. And Scott, what is it that the president sees in Jack Lew that makes him a good fit for the Treasury.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, he wouldn't need any on-the-job training. Jack Lew has been a key member of the administration, first as a director of the White House budget office and more recently as chief of staff. He also, during his career, has spent time on Capitol Hill. He's been steeped in the budget battles, not only the last couple of years, but really the last several decades. He began his political career as an aide to the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

And he remains a fierce defender of the social safety net, but like President Obama himself, Lew has shown a willingness to make modifications to that safety net that he sees as necessary to preserving it for the long term.

BLOCK: Now, Senate Republicans have expressed some reservations about Jack Lew. What are their objections?

HORSLEY: Well, some of their objections are really better aimed at President Obama. There are some Republicans you'll see quoted who don't like Mr. Obama's policies and so they're taking that out on Jack Lew and presumably if there is a confirmation hearing, that could be an opportunity to air some of the grievances that the congressional Republicans have with the administration economic policies, although it's not very likely the president would nominate someone who doesn't share his own views.

But Republicans have also complained about Lew as a negotiator. They've said that he has trouble getting to yes. In fact, Lew has not been the point person for the administration the last couple of rounds of negotiations with Republicans. Now, what Lew's defenders will say is that what the GOP really doesn't like is that he got the best of them in some of the earlier negotiations on a couple of occasions.

He was able to outfox them and if they don't like somebody like that running the treasury department.

BLOCK: Outfox them, how exactly?

HORSLEY: Well, just to give you one example, in the spring of 2011, the White House was negotiating with Republicans about an extension of the authority to keep the government's lights on basically. And the GOP was pushing for big spending cuts. They wanted more than $60 billion in spending cuts. They wound up compromising for what Republicans thought would be $38.5 billion in spending cuts, but when the Congressional Budget Office really dug into the details, they found that the short term spending cuts amounted to less than 1 percent of that.

Now, Jack Lew had been budget director. He knew the details of those spreadsheets in and out and Republicans felt like maybe he'd gotten the better of them.

BLOCK: Well, Scott, we're coming into a very busy time for the treasury department. They're scrambling to pay the government's bills, bumping up against the debt ceiling. What will the new secretary have to look forward to or to fear?

HORSLEY: Yeah, it's really going to be a frantic winter and early spring. The treasury department is already using what they call extraordinary measures just to keep paying the government's bills. Getting the debt ceiling raised is really going to be a top priority. The alternative to that would be a disaster. But then, in the next couple of months, we're also going to have those automatic spending cuts that were postponed as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Those are going to bounce back at us. And by the way, Lew had a hand in crafting those automatic spending cuts so they fall harder on defense, which is a key Republican priority then, for example, healthcare programs that the government runs. But those are going to come back. And then, we also just have the challenge of keeping the government's authorization to keep doing all the things that it does.

That's going to come due this spring as well. So the new treasury secretary will have a pretty full plate.

BLOCK: A little footnote about Jack Lew that's kind of fun here, Scott. If he's confirmed, it's his name that will be on the dollar bill and his signature looks like just a loopdy-doo. It's just a series of loops. You can't tell what it is.

HORSLEY: He's described as a really smart guy, but penmanship is not Jack Lew's strong suit. He might have to make some changes to something that's recognizable as treasury secretary. He signs a lot of (unintelligible).

BLOCK: A little adaptation there. If Jack Lew is named to be treasury secretary and is confirmed, who then replaces him as chief of staff?

HORSLEY: Well, one man that you hear mentioned is Dennis McDonough. He's a deputy national security advisor who's been part of the president's sort of inner circle all the way back to the 2008 campaign. Another possibility, Ron Klain, he was Vice President Biden's chief of staff and also a key advisor on the president's reelection campaign.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.

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