01.10.12

Michael Tomasky: Obama Cautious to a Fault in Choosing Jack Lew

Jack Lew may well do fine succeeding Bill Daley as White House chief of staff, but Obama would have been better off choosing someone outside his comfort zone, says Michael Tomasky.

Bill Daley didn’t like Washington. We knew that before, but anytime a White House chief of staff leaves a president stunned by his resignation, as Obama evidently was, we can fairly assume he wanted to get the hell out of town. Jack Lew, who apparently will be leaving the Office of Management and Budget to take the chief-of-staff job, is well regarded and has good relations with Democrats on the Hill, and even with some Republicans. He may do a crackerjack job, but all the same, this succession reminds me of something about Barack Obama that I really don’t like.

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President Obama, flanked by outgoing White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley (right) and his replacement, budget director Jack Lew, makes the announcement of the change on Monday (Susan Walsh / AP Photo)

He has such an insular comfort zone, and he seems terrified of going outside it. What would be the harm in hiring a chief of staff whom ... gasp ... the president didn’t know? Someone not ... gasp again ... from Chicago? OK, Lew is from New York, but he’s been in the administration from virtually day one. He has by every account done a good job. His highest-profile gig was handling the budget negotiations over the summer with House and Senate Republicans at the time of the debt-ceiling fracas. Those of course went nowhere, but that was largely the Republicans’ fault, as they were the ones who backed away from the table. Some Republicans, even Eric Cantor, said nice things about him.

So I have no complaints about Lew. I just wonder about Obama’s process and his emotional habits. And let’s face it, his track record on chiefs of staff is nothing to brag to mother about. Daley was a dud, by all accounts, and just his profile (Chicago corporate multimillionaire) sent a lot of bad signals to Democrats. And Rahm Emanuel was, let us say, an acquired taste.

Lew might break the mold, and good luck to him. But I say, and have long said, that this White House needs some outside perspectives. Early on, there was far too much protection of (God, did I come to despise this phrase) “the Obama brand”—this idea of him as above it all, and (God, did I come to abominate this phrase) “the adult in the room.” That ended last fall when David Plouffe and others finally, grudgingly accepted that Obama, being a politician, should behave like ... a politician, and acknowledge the existence of politics. So they’re doing better now, but they’re still an awfully cautious bunch. Obama should have named Richard Cordray to head the consumer bureau weeks ago, to say nothing of the many positions that remain unfilled that no American even knows about because the White House is afraid to pick a fight with Republicans on so-called process issues.

Lew is a Washington hand going way back. Maybe he has enough of the independence I crave in a high-level Obama staffer, because he does after all have many of his own preexisting power relationships for which he is not dependent on the president. That’s all well and good. He comes from the world of energy law, and a highly regarded and very connected Democratic law firm. People from those firms have a thousand relationships in town, on K Street and the Hill and on various other little satellites of power, that should help him and the administration. So that makes him very different from Daley. And he presumably doesn’t go around calling everyone he encounters a fuckface, which makes him an anti-Rahm.

Also on the plus side: if Obama is reelected, the main order of business will be negotiations with the Hill (at least one house presumably still in GOP hands) on the Bush tax cuts and other budgetary items. Lew obviously knows about those matters. And since he appears to have Democrats’ trust and Republicans’ grudging respect, maybe he’ll be able to guide the president toward a winning hand there.

So the plus column is far from empty. Still, I wish Obama had the self-confidence to say to himself: “You know what, I’m going outside the circle, to someone we don’t know, someone who can tell me no, who can tell Plouffe to shut up, who can tell Valerie Jarrett (yes, even the mysteriously sainted Jarrett!) that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and who can shake things up around here a little bit.” It’s even a good time for it—as no Washington politics is going to get done this year, my mythical ball-buster would have about 10 months to get the rest of the staff to fear and loathe him or her before having to get down to business. Here’s hoping Lew becomes that person.