Some liberals were outraged that Lew and the administration were willing to make such cuts.
“My understanding is that he has not been unsympathetic to either raising the age of Medicare eligibility or [changes to Social Security], which I think is just a horrendous attack on senior citizens and veterans and working people,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats and has come out against Lew’s nomination. “That’s not the way you do deficit reduction.”
No senators other than Sessions and Sanders have come out against Lew’s nomination, and no major barriers seem to stand in the way of him being confirmed by the Senate.
Lew, who is married and has two grown children, developed his political outlook while growing up in Forest Hills, N.Y. At age 12, he handed out fliers for the campaign of Eugene McCarthy, who ran against President Lyndon B. Johnson on an anti-war platform in 1968.
He went to Carleton College in Minnesota, where he had the late Paul Wellstone, a liberal lion, as a professor and then left school to join the office of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), a crusader for women’s rights.
“Where he literally comes from and where he comes from ideologically is the same place — Queens, New York City, from the outer borough neighborhoods where scores of people were immigrants and were striving to get ahead,” Baer said.
But in his mid-20s, Lew, who later finished college at Harvard and got a law degree at Georgetown, saw how ideological principles collided with political and economic realities.
As a top adviser to House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), Lew was part of the team that did something many Democrats didn’t want to do — reform Social Security. When he was just 27, he helped oversee passage of legislation stabilizing Social Security for a generation, by gradually raising the eligibility age to 67 and increasing payroll taxes.
But even as he supported those changes, Lew also successfully fought deep cuts to low-income programs advocated by the Reagan administration.
In the Clinton administration, Lew helped create the AmeriCorps community service initiative and later worked on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failed health-care plan.
Tapped as Clinton’s budget director, Lew faced a budget battle with Republicans, much as he does now. And while the eventual deal was friendly to GOP goals — it included tax cuts and spending cuts — Lew and colleagues stood firm against slashing programs for the poor. In fact, they expanded them.
“During the 1997 budget agreement, Jack was a central player on protecting Medicaid,” said John Podesta, who was Clinton’s chief of staff. “He was also able to help expand health insurance for 5 million kids and protect tax benefits that went to the working poor.”
During the Bush years, Lew worked for New York University in an operations role and then was at the massive bank Citigroup during some of its worst moments — an experience that has led critics to question whether Obama should be nominating someone with a Wall Street background for such a critical role.
Under Obama, he first worked as the deputy secretary of the State Department before becoming budget director in 2010. His supporters say that as Treasury secretary, he will be trusted to give the president a balanced perspective.
In the latest “fiscal cliff” talks, Obama tapped Lew to help lead a discussion with business leaders in the White House, pressing the executives to support a big deal to stabilize the debt.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was Lew’s deputy at OMB and is now president of the Walmart Foundation, said that while Lew’s predecessors excelled in specific areas, Lew combines features.
“If you were to look at Bob Rubin on a scale of 1 to 10, you’d put him on a 10 on financial services experience. If you looked at Lloyd Bentsen on a scale of 1 to 10, you’d put him at 10 on experience politically,” she said. “I would put Jack as 10 on the scale of composite — meaning combining a set of skills.”