ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Democrats here in Washington have big plans. You could see the outlines in the budget proposals that passed the House and Senate last week. There are also big problems, like how to pay for everything. At the nexus of policy goals and budgeting, President Obama's secret weapon is Peter Orszag. He's the White House budget director. Orszag has a reputation as someone who is skilled at number crunching, policy writing and public relations. NPR's Andrea Seabrook has this profile.
ANDREA SEABROOK: I bet you never thought a budget guy could get this kind of attention.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")
Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"): He's the White House budget director. Please welcome to the program Peter Orszag. Sir.
(Soundbite of music, applause)
SEABROOK: But here he is, just the other night, headlining "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
Mr. PETER ORSZAG (White House Budget Director): We inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit.
Mr. STEWART: Right.
Mr. ORSZAG: So we have a big mess.
Mr. STEWART: That's our starting point?
Mr. ORSZAG: That's our starting point.
Mr. STEWART: One-point-three trillion?
Mr. ORSZAG: Write that down.
SEABROOK: This is the man known affectionately around the White House as Obama's Super Nerd. As the director of OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, Orszag shares big ideas with the president.
Mr. ORSZAG: Frankly, in our very first discussion about the possibility of my coming to OMB, we talked about health care.
SEABROOK: That's unusual. The OMB director is often more of a number cruncher than a policy advocate. But a big part of President Obama's number- crunching needs is geared toward building a new health-care system. And Orszag came to the administration with plenty of ideas of his own.
Mr. ORSZAG: I mean, clearly, he's the president, and as we move down the road of actually getting legislation enacted this year, he's going to be making the final calls and making decisions. But in terms of the direction and capturing these opportunities, he seems to be very much in the same space, which is why I was so enthusiastic about moving over to OMB.
SEABROOK: Orszag came from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. In his two years there, he came to believe that the way to get the federal budget under control in the long term was to stop health-care costs from rising so dramatically. He issued papers and analyses. He gave lectures and speeches about the economics of health care. And last fall, in recognition of this work, Orszag was admitted to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. He's one of the youngest members, and one of the few who is not a physician.
Through his work at the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag also built strong relationships in Congress. Listen to how these three key lawmakers describe him.
Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): He's a very talented guy. I would love to be able to sit down across the table with Peter Orszag and hammer out some really good entitlement reforms that…
Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; Republican House Whip): Peter Orszag is, you know, a very smart individual who has a good grasp on the fiscal challenges that we face.
Representative MARK KIRK (Republican, Illinois): The number one qualification for a budget chief is command of details, and he has that in spades. This is a man who doesn't just read a spreadsheet, he lives a spreadsheet.
SEABROOK: All of these comments come from Republicans. That was Paul Ryan, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee; Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip; and Mark Kirk, a leader of Republican moderates in Congress. And the Democrats? They say he's analytically honest, and has a passion for extending health care to all Americans.
Orszag sits at a long, polished table in his office next to the White House and explains that the way he sees it, economics and medicine are both changing. They're beginning to take into account, he says, a factor that had been left out of scientific models for years: human behavior.
Mr. ORSZAG: Too many academic fields have tried to apply pure mathematical models to activities that involve human beings. And whenever that happens -whether it's in economics or health care or medical science - whenever human beings are involved, an approach that is attracted by that purity will lead you astray.
SEABROOK: This from a man with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. But Orszag says he feels like he was somewhat mistrained as a pure economist, that he's learning about real life now.
For example, he says if something is hard to do - whether it's saving money or taking care of your health - people probably won't do it, no matter how good the incentives are. In medicine, researchers are finding that a patient's attitude can be as important to recovery as the treatment given.
The point is, says Orszag, psychology matters. He even uses this approach on himself. Orszag is a runner, and he wanted to train to do a marathon, so he came up with a psychological trick to keep himself on task.
Mr. ORSZAG: If I didn't achieve what I wanted to, a very large contribution would automatically come out of my credit card and go to a charity that I very much did not support. So that was a very strong motivation, as I was running through mile 15 or 16 or whatever it was, to remind myself that I really didn't want to give the satisfaction to that charity…
SEABROOK: Come on, what's the charity?
Mr. ORSZAG: Now I'm - no, no, no. You're not…
SEABROOK: Orszag says a new health-care system could use psychology to figure out ways to give better medical care, not just more. And that's what he really wants to do: combine caring for people with good economic decisions.
Mr. ORSZAG: And that combination, I think, is embodied in a lot of what behavioral economics does. I think it's embodied in a lot of what the Obama administration is standing for, and I think that may be one reason why I was so enthusiastic about joining the administration.
SEABROOK: Orszag says a mentor taught him early in his career that a great social economist should have a hard head and a soft heart.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.