RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And the Senate will hold a confirmation hearing tomorrow for the Obama administration's choice of a new treasury secretary. Jack Lew has worked for years in Washington under two different presidents, yet he is hardly a household name. In fact, most of the chatter around him so far has been from handwriting experts, analyzing his loopy, indecipherable signature, which will appear on all U.S. currency if he's confirmed.
NPR's Ailsa Chang takes a closer look at the man, and a brief stint that he spent at Citigroup between the Clinton and Obama administrations.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The man President Obama has picked to help oversee the country's biggest banks has said it plainly - he's no expert on banking. He told the Senate that in 2010, when they were vetting him to be director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent, asked Lew if he thought deregulation on Wall Street caused the financial crisis.
JACK LEW: Senator, I, as when we discussed, I mentioned to you I don't consider myself an expert in some of these aspects of the financial industry. My experience in the financial industry has been as a manager, not as an investment advisor.
CHANG: I'm just a manager. That may be the way Lew will wash his hands clean of a messy time at Citigroup, when he was chief operating officer for one of the bank's riskiest investment units.
If Lew says again at his next confirmation hearing that he was only a manager at Citigroup, it might be to suggest he wasn't the one who made the financially disastrous decisions there. In fact, if you talk to Lew's defenders now, it seems manager is already the go-to word.
Former Treasury Secretary and former Citigroup Chairman Robert Rubin was the one who helped Lew get a job at Citi.
ROBERT RUBIN: That was a job that required somebody who had managerial effectiveness, and Jack had been a very effective manager of the government and then a very effective manager at NYU, and that's what they were looking for - manager.
CHANG: Of course, to some people, the word manager suggests you're one of the people in charge, and they can't help but notice that Lew was at the helm of a company that suffered such massive losses, it got the biggest federal government bailout of any bank.
SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: Did he contribute to the conditions at Citi that led to the bailout?
CHANG: That's going to be one of the questions Republican Senator Chuck Grassley will shoot at Lew during the confirmation hearing. To a lot of people, a question like that is just an attempt to create drama around a no-drama guy.
Jack Lew is a quiet, bookish man behind glasses. He has the resume of that kid in school who seems to be good at everything. He was director of OMB twice, a top administrator at NYU, deputy to the secretary of state and chief of staff to the president. Now he's in a strange situation. While some people are saying he may have brushed too closely with Wall Street, others are insisting he's a near-stranger to that world.
Alice Rivlin, former OMB director, says it wouldn't set the right tone to have a Wall Street insider for a treasury secretary these days.
ALICE RIVLIN: So Jack has had, I think, just about the right amount of experience in the financial community.
CHANG: Lew sure didn't seem to have his sights set on a Wall Street career when he was growing up in Queens, New York. At 12, he was handing out fliers for Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign. By the time he was 23, he was a top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. Lew spent the next three decades as a fixture in Washington, departing on weekends for his home in New York.
Friends like Rabbi Levi Shemtov describe Lew as a humble man who doesn't like to attract attention.
RABBI LEVI SHEMTOV: When he walks into synagogue, and not just ours, but any - because everyone who goes to the other places he prays at says the same thing - that when he walks in, it's like any usual congregant. No fuss, no muss. It's never about him, and he never wants it to be about him.
CHANG: Those close to Lew often comment on how deeply committed he is to his Orthodox Jewish faith - and the great lengths he'll go to observe the Sabbath, even under his hectic schedule. It means no email, no phone and no riding in cars from sundown every Friday to sundown Saturday.
Lobbyist Steve Elmendorf remembers spotting Lew at the airport one Friday afternoon with a briefcase full of blank paper.
STEVE ELMENDORF: Yeah, it was in the middle of some budget crisis. He said, I'm not allowed to communicate electronically, but they can fax me stuff. So I have to have a lot of paper to put in the fax machine.
CHANG: Supporters of Lew dare the Senate to come up with anything truly controversial to say. And the most recent brouhaha seems to be over Lew's failure to comply with a little-known legal requirement involving Medicare funding.
If Medicare trustees warn that the program is in bad financial shape, the OMB director is supposed to submit a resolution of this issue to Congress. Lew never did that, and Republicans say they just may try to block his confirmation for that.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.