Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jack Lew

The biggest news of the day is probably the selection of Jack Lew to replace Peter Orszag at OMB. Jonathan Cohn scooped the world with a profile of Lew over the weekend; see also reporting on the selection from Joshua Green.  Green quotes the National Journal's Alexis Simendinger, who said that the administration was "seeking an overlooked miracle worker who understands budgeting, Obama's agenda, politics, Congress, the media, management; is perhaps an economist, would go mano-a-mano with economic adviser Lawrence Summers, has no Wall Street or big-bank taint, and is not just another white male."

Which of those is crucial?  My guess is that the big one there is management.  We're probably entering a period of relative stalement on Capitol Hill, at least after the elections this fall, so while dealing with Congress is always important, it's probably less so than it was this year.  I think media savvy is far overrated in general within the White House (or the larger presidential branch); really, it's overrated in the president, and it's very hard to believe that an OMB director is going to affect public opinion at all.  Obviously, understanding the budget and the president's agenda are necessary, but one would imagine those are threshold requirements. 

Management, however...my guess is that that's the key one.  I think there's a very, very good chance that there are still at least a handful, and perhaps dozens, of MMS-type scandals still to be uncovered and, more importantly, fixed.  Or, if not true scandals, just plenty of agencies that received little if any supervision during the Bush years, beyond a general understanding that the best way to have the White House ignore them (and mostly that's what bureaucrats want) was to not upset any major GOP-aligned interests.  That is, there was little reward in actually doing their job well.  However, this administration is supposed to care about government working well, and while they may have been aggressively attacking such things below the radar, my guess is that it hasn't been on the front burner so far.  It should be, now, and it certainly should be, if there is legislative stalemate, next year and in 2012 -- if for no other reason that scandals uncovered in that year aren't going to be plausibly blamed on the last administration.  And the one spot that the president can use to make sure that the various agencies and departments are reasonably well-run, and are actually implementing his policies, is the OMB director. 

So I have no idea whether Lew is the right person for that job, although previous experience is almost certainly a Good Thing, but I would say that a lot of the job that needs to be done is more about management than about policy per se (although of course a lot of management is policy.  And vice versa).

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