The experience is unusual for a Treasury secretary, a position traditionally occupied by someone with more of a background in financial markets or corporate America. It has also opened Lew, 57, to criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives say he has a blind obsession with providing government benefits, without care for the nation’s overall finances. Some liberals say he has too often forfeited his principles in search of bipartisan deals.
Yet his history suggests that while Lew aggressively advocates on behalf of programs that protect the poor, he has also been willing to make unpopular compromises out of a belief that the nation must have its financial books in order.
“What makes Jack, ‘Jack,’ and not a caricature of a big government liberal who believes that all spending is good is that he also believes you also need to make sure that every dollar is spent as effectively as possible,” said Kenneth Baer, a former senior adviser to Lew at the Office of Management and Budget. “He has a hard head and a soft heart. He has had to make very hard decisions, especially in the last couple of years when you have limited resources.”
In the budget negotiations of 2011, both sides of Lew’s approach to dealing with the nation’s financial challenges were vividly on display.
Near the end of negotiations over ways to trim the deficit in 2011, Lew was on the phone with a top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The aide introduced the idea of targeting Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, for deep spending cuts. The proposal prompted Lew, usually calm and restrained, to become angry.
“No! No! No!” Lew shouted over the telephone, exasperated that a proposal to cut a low-
income program was being introduced at the last minute, according to Republicans and Democrats familiar with the call, which was first reported in Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics.”
Instead, the mechanism Lew helped design to ensure deficit savings — an automated series of spending cuts known as the sequester that is set to take effect in early March without further action by Congress — spared Medicaid and most other low-income programs. White House officials take pride in that point today — even as other cuts that were agreed upon bring much domestic spending to historic lows.
“Jack’s background seems to have taught him that federal budgets are codifications of our values,” said Ron Pollack, who has worked with Lew as executive director of Families USA, a group that advocates for public health-care coverage. “An apparent high priority value for him, like the president, is the most economically vulnerable families should not be forced to shoulder unbearable burdens.”