President Obama isn’t likely to have much trouble getting the Senate to confirm Jack Lew as his new treasury secretary. Though Senator Jeff Sessions has vowed to try and stop Lew, there is nothing in the nominee’s long record of service to Democratic presidents that would disqualify him for the office. Given the fight that is brewing over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for the Department of Defense and the CIA, there is little appetite on the Hill for any further effort to deny the president his choice to run an important department.
But even though Lew will probably be easily confirmed, his nomination is one more signal that there may be no way to avoid more bitter and counter-productive confrontations with Congress over the budget. Lew is well known to be a hard-core progressive who, during the negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, made it clear that he opposes any true reform of entitlement spending. Having run to the left and won re-election, President Obama is entitled to try and govern from the left. Lew’s selection illustrates that this is his intention. But though he may have a mandate to govern, that doesn’t give him the power to alter reality. If he isn’t prepared to start thinking about cutting spending, then no amount of rhetorical excess will prevent this country from going further down the road to insolvency.
Lew’s hard-line liberalism is exactly what qualifies him to sit in Obama’s new cabinet of yes-men. That he has the trust of the president after serving him faithfully as White House chief of staff is to his credit, but that doesn’t change the fact that an administration economic team that is dedicated to defending the status quo is exactly what the country doesn’t need as we sink further into a period of fiscal crisis.
Mr. Obama seems to think that he can avoid the usual second term blues that afflict most presidents by creating a team with a hard ideological edge that won’t lose focus or lack the energy to fight for the things he believes. That’s an interesting working theory for how to be the first president to avoid a miserable second term since Theodore Roosevelt. But he and Jack Lew seem to think that he can alter the basic laws of economics the way King Canute sought to alter the laws of nature at the seashore.
By replacing Tim Geithner—a man who for all of his flaws had a grasp of what was good or bad for the nation’s economy—with a left-wing ideologue, Obama is telling us that he thinks his second term will be one in which his political beliefs can contradict the basic fact that the United States cannot tax its way out of its spending problem. While the liberal press continues to portray the president’s conservative opponents as extremists, it is clearer than ever that the real radicals are in the White House and now at the Treasury.