With Daley slated to leave after this month’s State of the Union address, OMB Director Jacob J. Lew will assume the chief of staff position, but only after putting the finishing touches on President Obama’s 2013 federal budget proposal, aides said Monday.
“Jack has had one of the other most difficult jobs in Washington,” President Obama said Monday in making the announcement, adding later that “Jack’s economic advice has been invaluable and he has my complete trust, both because of his mastery of the numbers, but because of the values behind those numbers.”
“Ever since he began his career in public as a top aide to Speaker Tip O’Neill, Jack has fought for an America where hard work and responsibility pay off, a place where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same rules,” Obama said. “And that belief is reflected in every decision that Jack makes.”
Once Lew leaves OMB, “a very talented and committed senior team” will lead the agency, spokesman Kenneth Baer said in an e-mail Monday. “Whatever decision the President makes about who is to lead the agency, there will be a continuity of leadership at the highest levels.”
The team is led by two deputy directors each responsible for one of OMB’s dual roles. Jeffrey D. Zients handles the “M” (for management) while Heather A. Higginbottom is responsible for the “B” (budget).
Zients, 45, is a veteran Washington-area corporate executive who has served in his role since early 2009. He handled last year’s planning for a potential government shutdown and was tapped by Daley to lead an administration-wide reorganization effort that quickly fizzled out after launching last spring.
Higginbottom, 39, is a former aide to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who first served as a White House domestic policy adviser in the Obama administration before being tapped for her current perch when Lew took the top budget job from Peter R. Orszag in Nov. 2010. Her nomination lingered for several months amid stiff resistance from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and other GOP senators who questioned whether she had the practical experience to handle federal budgetary matters. She was confirmed by the Senate in October.
Despite the upheaval, the latest OMB transition comes at an ideal time, said Craig Jennings, a fiscal policy analyst with the nonpartisan OMB Watch, a think tank that — you guessed it — watches OMB.
With aides putting the finishing touches on Obama’s 2013 budget proposal, and with the budget-writing process not slated to begin again until the summer, “it’s kind of just going to be keeping your hand on the steering wheel and keeping course” for Zients and Higginbottom, Jennings said.
Plus, with the Senate not likely to seriously consider a new nominee to lead the agency, “nothing’s going to happen in terms of getting someone new this year,” he said.
Lew, who served as OMB director during the Clinton years, becomes the third OMB director in the last two decades to serve as West Wing boss, following in the footsteps of Leon E. Panetta, who held the job under Bill Clinton, and Joshua Bolten, who took the helm for a period during George W. Bush’s presidency.
As you’ll hear in the coming days, Lew is regarded across Washington and across the political spectrum — and also in the halls of federal agencies — as being a fair broker and tough budget negotiator. Part of his appeal, observers say, is that he maintains a generally level-headed attitude even in the midst of difficult political negotiations.
“I live life as an optimist,” Lew told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor lunch last February. “I think people who sit around saying bad things are going to happen tend to contribute to self-fulfilling prophecies and people who believe there will be a solution tend to contribute to solutions. For the last 30 years, I’ve been proud to be one of the people who helped solved problems and I think we will do that here as well.”
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost