Editorial: Mazel tov, Jack Lew!

Appointment to the Treasury secretary is above else a testament to Obama’s appreciation of Lew’s skills and values. But it is also an opportunity for Jews in Israel and abroad to kvel.

Jack Lew and Obama 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jack Lew and Obama 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last January, when President Barack Obama appointed Jacob “Jack” Lew as White House chief of staff, a position considered to be closest to the US president’s ear, David Harris, president and CEO of the National Democratic Jewish Council, declared it to be “a point of communal pride.”
Rabbi Steven Burg and Nathan Diament, top officials at the Orthodox Union, wished Lew “a hearty mazel tov on his historic appointment.”
Now with Lew slated to take over the post of Treasury secretary, another tribal feel-good session is in order. Lew’s expected appointment is also a positive development after the controversy in some Jewish circles surrounding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.
But in the final analysis, Obama’s decision to tap Lew says more about the ideological affinity between the two men and the president’s appreciation of Lew’s skills and values than it does about US-Jewish or US-Israel relations.
Unlike most Orthodox Jewish peers, who tend to hold relatively conservative political positions, Lew – whose father arrived in the US from Poland in 1916 – has a long history with the Democrats, particularly the party’s most liberal wing. Already in 1968, when just 12 years old, Lew canvassed in New York for senator Eugene McCarthy, a poet who ran on an anti-Vietnam war platform in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In a 1999 interview with The New York Times, Lew said of that experience, “It was... my introduction to seeing that you could make a difference in people’s lives through politics.”
At 18, Lew became an aide to “Battling Bella” Abzug, a prominent feminist and one of the first members of Congress to support gay rights. And at 23, after graduating from Harvard, he went to work for democratic speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, who championed universal healthcare and job programs. Lew was O’Neill’s chief aide on domestic policy.
Lew is a numbers guy. Before becoming chief of staff, he served two terms as director of the Office of Management and Budget, first between 1998 and 2001 during the Clinton administration, when he was credited with balancing the budget and ending the Clinton administration era with a large national surplus, and again under Obama. Though he has spent three decades as a public servant in various positions, he also had a short stint in the private sector, serving as chief operating officer of Citigroup Alternative Investments in 2008 around the time of the sub-prime meltdown in the US housing market.
Lew appears to have won Obama’s faith to an unusual degree. Last year when he appointed Lew as his chief of staff, Obama said, “If there was a Hall of Fame for budget directors, then Jack Lew surely would have earned a place for his service in that role under president Clinton.”
He has served as one of Obama’s top lieutenants in negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” crisis. And when Obama was locked in painful spending negotiations with House Republicans last spring, Lew, described by the New York Times as “his exceedingly meticulous budget director,” went to the Oval Office to propose some complex budget changes. As Lew delved deeper and deeper into the numbers, Obama put up his hand, signaling him to stop. “Jack, it’s fine,” the president said, according to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economics adviser, who witnessed the exchange. “I trust your values. I trust your judgment on this.”
Appointment to the Treasury secretary is above else a testament to Obama’s appreciation of Lew’s skills and values. But it is also an opportunity for Jews in Israel and abroad to kvel that a member of the tribe has climbed to such an influential position in the US.
This is especially true in the case of Lew, a man proud of his Jewish roots and unabashedly committed to his rich tradition.