By Shar Adams
WASHINGTON—White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew has been officially nominated as U.S. Treasury secretary, replacing Timothy Geithner after his tough four-year term. Lew’s nomination comes amid substantial leadership changes as President Barack Obama forges a second-term cabinet.
In announcing Lew’s nomination, President Obama thanked outgoing Secretary Geithner for his outstanding service, describing the dire state of the U.S. economy at Geithner’s appointment four years prior and the achievements gained since.
“The fact is, while a lot of work remains, especially to rebuild a strong middle class and offer working folks new pathways to rise into the middle class, our economy is better positioned for tomorrow than most of those other countries hit by the financial crisis,” he said during remarks made in the White House Thursday.
Obama also said that Geithner would be missed and would “go down as one of our finest Secretaries of the Treasury.”
Lew’s nomination was “bittersweet,” according to Obama, not only because Geithner is leaving, but also because Lew will no longer be in the White House as chief of staff.
“I trust his judgment. I value his friendship. I know very few people with greater integrity,” Obama said, adding, “But my loss will be the nation’s gain.”
Lew has been criticized for being too close to the president, threatening his ability to make decisions that may run contrary to White House expectations.
“In an environment in which Congress fosters a deep resentment of President Obama that often makes the relationship unworkable, it is a challenge,” said Dr. John Hudak, governance fellow with the D.C. think-tank the Brookings Institution. “Mr. Lew needs to demonstrate to Congress that he is not simply a puppet of the White House, but someone willing to engage all of the interested stakeholders and political actors.”
New York City-born Lew could also be the right man at the right time for Obama, his nomination coming as lawmakers head into a contentious fiscal session with debt-ceiling negotiations looming and with the continuing threat of sequestration, which has been postponed until March 1.
As former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during two presidencies, once for Obama and once for Bill Clinton, Lew brings not only an understanding of the machinations of Congress, the egos involved, and the parameters of presidential power, but also of fiscal issues.
The fact is, while a lot of work remains … our economy is better positioned for tomorrow than most of those other countries hit by the financial crisis.
—President Barack Obama
“He has a wonkish approach to financial policy, understanding both the numbers and the politics surrounding these issue areas,” Hudak said in an email.
Lew’s nomination has brought criticism from Republicans.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, released a statement to Fox News the day before the president’s announcement, saying that he was opposed to the appointment on the strength of Lew’s role at the OMB and on resulting Obama budgets.
“We need a secretary of Treasury that the American people, the Congress, and the world will know is up to the task of getting America on the path to prosperity not the path to decline,” Sessions said. “Jack Lew is not that man.”
National Security Appointments
Changes to Obama’s first-term cabinet have been coming fast and thick as the president moves toward his inauguration Jan. 20. The first change was key—nominating as early as December Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the replacement for popular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
This week, two more key changes were announced: Republican and decorated Vietnam War hero Chuck Hagel nominated to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and John Brennan to replace Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus.
Hagel was vocal about his opposition to the Iraq War during the Bush administration and has been criticized by conservatives for being too soft in regard to the Middle East and Iran.
John Brennan, adviser to President Obama on counter-terrorism for the last four years, has also been criticized due to positions he held on certain CIA programs—particularly torture—known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, withdrew from consideration as CIA director in 2008, reportedly on account of those positions.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also a Vietnam War veteran, issued statements of concern about both nominations, raising fears that Hagel may not be tough enough and that Brennan may be too tough.
Defense expert Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, believes that both nominations align with President Obama’s desire to minimize U.S. engagement in military action unless absolutely necessary. He believes that the president is likely to focus more on soft-power strategies as a form of influence.
Brennan’s nomination, while maintaining a “stay the course” approach, may also indicate a “tamping down” of military strategies in national security, according to Conetta.
Hagel’s nomination may indicate a “more diplomatic and political approach to defense,” he said.
Further Cabinet Changes
Further senior-level changes are expected in the Obama cabinet in the coming weeks. While the White House emphasized Wednesday that Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki would remain in their posts, the statement did not indicate for how long.
President Obama announced the resignation of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis on the same day, which came as a surprise, as Solis has given little indication of her intention to move.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are also tipped to move, although neither has declared an intention to resign.