Jacob Lew perfects the art of dodging questionsAugust 27, 2013: 5:00 AM ET
In a town where buck-passing, deflecting, and spinning is standard fare, our Treasury Secretary stands above all others. Fortune found out firsthand.
By Adam Lashinsky, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- I interviewed Jacob Lew, President Obama's second Treasury Secretary, last Thursday. A few nights earlier I asked a roomful of businesspeople if anyone could name the man who runs fiscal policy for the world's only superpower. No one could. And so I embarked on a week of study to bone up a little bit on the man and more on the challenges he faces.
Lew is a lawyer who has spent most of his career in government, with stints in the Clinton and Obama administrations. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget initially, then the president's chief of staff, and he succeeded Timothy Geithner earlier this year. He's currently heading up three main initiatives for the administration: regulatory reform (a.k.a. implementing the Dodd-Frank legislation enacted three years ago); keeping the government funded, including facing down House Republicans on their whack-job refusal to authorize raising the government's borrowing limit; and the president's economic policy initiatives, a grab-bag of small-bore proposals that sound good but aren't likely to have much of an impact.
It's a tough job, and the No. 1 thing I learned from Lew is that to be in that job one must excel at not answering questions. It's practically a pre-requisite.
I asked Lew how the government could have missed more than 60% of its deadlines in implementing Dodd-Frank, according to a well publicized study by the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. He waved off that study as having unspecified accuracy issues. Dodd-Frank is complex, he said, and needs to be done right. No argument there, but it's mystifying how blasé government officials can be about missing their deadlines, and I'm annoyed with myself for not pushing him harder on that point.
Noting that in his previous job Lew was instrumental in designing the controversial "sequester" of government funds he currently is trying to undo, I asked Lew if his travel had been restricted by it. A recent New York Times article noted that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had cut back his planned trips to Afghanistan to twice a year. Lew laughed off the question by saying he doesn't need to travel to Afghanistan anymore. But he didn't answer my question.
(It's worth noting here what was on Lew's three-item itinerary during his trip to Silicon Valley. He met at Facebook (FB), he told me, with a group assembled by Sheryl Sandberg and included Facebook's board of directors -- including the prominent Democrat Erskine Bowles and publisher-for-now of the Washington Post (WPO) Donald Graham -- as well as a handful of area business leaders like LinkedIn (LNKD) CEO Jeff Weiner. He also toured AT&T Foundry, an "innovation center" that I suppose I need to tour as well because I've never once spoken to a "tech leader" involved with it. Lew's last stop was the 45-minute appearance before the Commonwealth Club of California, which I moderated. The club tells me a video will be available later in the week.)
When Lew wasn't not answering questions he was pretty good at buck-passing and deflecting. The massive Nasdaq (NDAQ) outage had just ended when Lew took the stage at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. I asked if the government was adequately regulating electronic trading given that this wasn't the first recent breakdown in the system. He correctly pointed out that the Securities and Exchange Commission regulates Nasdaq, NYSE, and other exchanges, and then engaged in a little discourse on the pros and cons of technology -- an appropriate conversation given the surroundings. But will the government fix this problem? I didn't find out.
I tried to engage Lew in a conversation about just what he and the president mean by helping the middle class. It's a murky topic because helping the middle class is one of those populist tropes politicians love: No one's against it, but it doesn't exactly mean anything. Asked for an example, Lew reached for the day's talking points, noting that the president was speaking that very day about his plan to tie federal aid for students to the performance of the college they attend. Driving home that afternoon I heard a piece on NPR that eviscerated the president's plan as unworkable.
The administration also is pushing a network of "manufacturing innovation centers," the first of which recently opened in Youngstown, Ohio. I asked Lew if there is any evidence that these centers lead to any tangible successes. He replied that the Youngstown center already is a success; In his speech he noted that the "advanced lab" formerly was a defunct warehouse and now houses workers "mastering 3-D printing technologies." Centers like this, Lew said in his speech, "have enormous potential." (Youngstown, by the way, features prominently in the outstanding and controversial book The Unwinding by New Yorker writer George Packer, a recent guest at Fortune Brainstorm Tech. I wonder if Packer has visited the center in Youngstown and has an opinion on its efficacy.)
I've picked out the bits of my interview with Lew that illustrate his dodging and weaving. I left out so far how he comes across as intelligent, likable, and totally competent to be at the helm of the nation's economy. He's a perfect representative of a highly disciplined White House led by a highly disciplined president. His job isn't to excite or entertain. It's to grapple with tough problems and implement the president's economic policies. Lew seems to be doing a good job on all fronts.