There are those who think a politician cannot be charged with anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism if the politician appoints Jews or Israelis to high positions. President Obama has just handed such people another shield to hold up against those charges. Bloomberg and other news sites are reporting that tomorrow, January 10, Obama will nominate his Orthodox current chief of staff, Jack Lew, to head the Treasury Department. Lew would replace the out-going Timothy Geithner.
Staunchly pro-Israel and pro-American leaders and organizations have harshly criticized the president’s most recent nominations for three of the most significant positions in the U.S. government. Claims against all three have centered on their documented inclinations towards conciliation and negotiation with the most intractable Islamist and repressive governments, including Iran and Syria, and terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, while at the same time exhibiting a decided frigidity towards the Jewish State. Those claims have been leveled against Senator John Kerry (R-MA) for Secretary of State, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NB) for Secretary of Defense, and John Brennan for Director of the CIA, all of whom have encountered fierce resistance in certain sections of the staunchly pro-Israel community.
It is unlikely that Lew’s nomination will be met with hostility by the pro-Israel crowd, but that is not because he is an Orthodox Jew who strives to maintain his Shomer Shabbat life despite his demanding position. Rather, a cursory review of Lew’s professional and academic background reveals a candidate who appears eminently qualified for what is a non-foreign policy position.
Lew was born and raised in Queens, New York, received degrees from Harvard College and Georgetown Law School, and spent most of his career in the public sector, including two stints heading the Office of Management and Budget, and serving as an aide to the late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill (D-MA). His private sector positions have included managing director for Citigroup and as an executive vice president of New York University.
In his role as right hand man to the president, the Orthodox Lew was useful in using that hand to reach out to, and smooth down the feathers of, those mainstream American Jewish organizations and leaders for whom such outreach is meaningful. It was widely reported that Lew assisted Obama in making calls to the heads of such organizations, in trying to derail “Jewish” criticism of the Hagel nomination.
While Lew is unlikely to face hectoring from pro-Israel forces, what he will face as Treasury Secretary is more than sufficiently harrowing. It will be his job to try and tame the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling. That limit was reached on December 31, at which point the Treasury Department began using “extraordinary measures” to keep the government operating. But those measures will be exhausted within the next few weeks, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
As the president’s chief of staff, Lew was already used as the president’s kosher imprimatur, but the Treasury Secretary is a higher profile position and one that sets policy, whereas chief of staff ostensibly controls access to the president, but is not an independent policy-making position.
An in-depth article about Lew which ran in November’s National Journal, reveals a man who very much shares this president’s views of government and spending priorities.
If Lew became Treasury secretary, members of the business sector and political observers say, it would send two messages from the administration to Wall Street and the financial community. First, that they don’t have an ally or one of their own in Washington. Second, that the White House intends to keep close watch over tax policy and international financial decisions.
The choice would make the Treasury job an extension of the White House’s economic team. “And [appointing] Jack Lew suggests that [Obama] is going to continue to be the principal economic spokesperson because Jack Lew is not Mr. Outside. He’s Mr. Inside,” says Rothkopf, the former Clinton official.
And in the most recent fiscal cliff negotiations, Lew was seen by some as being particularly obstructionist. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was reportedly irked by Lew’s intransigence.
Still, Treasury is hardly a position like Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense from which decisions that have an existential impact on Israel will be made. Domestic spending issues are more frequently the focus of centrist Jewish organizations which tend to be dominated by Democrats, for whom a fiscal conservative might be a lightening rod. Lew is unlikely to raise the ire of non-partisan pro-Israel organizations.
Of course, if Lew is moving to Treasury, who will be the president’s next chief of staff? So far the names being floated include Denis McDonough, currently a deputy national security adviser, and Ron Klain, who had served as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff.
If Lew’s replacement is Denis McDonough, sparks may yet fly. McDonough has been fingered as one of the people most likely to have altered the famous CIA talking points on the attacks on Benghazi. The alteration of those points, it has been claimed, led the Obama administration to publicly blame the murderous violence on a crude little video which Muslims deemed insulting to their prophet, rather than immediately acknowledging that it was a planned attack by an al Qaeda affiliate against the United States on the anniversary of 9/11. It is hard to believe the White House would want to bring the focus back on Benghazi, although most news sites which have mentioned McDonough as one of Lew’s likely successors did not even make the connection.