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Five things you should know about new White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew

Five things you should know about new White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew

President Barack Obama announced today that White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley will resign and be replaced by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director and former Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew. In his remarks today, Obama touted Lew’s experience on both domestic and foreign policy matters.

"Jack has fought for an America where hard work and responsibility pay off, a place where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share and everybody plays by the same rules. And that belief is reflected in every decision that Jack makes," Obama said. "Jack also has my confidence on matters outside the borders. Before he served at OMB for me, Jack spent two years running the extremely complex and challenging budget and operations process for Secretary [Hillary] Clinton at the State Department, where his portfolio also included managing the civilian operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And over the last year, he has weighed in on many of the major foreign policy decisions that we’ve made."

Here are five things you may not know about Lew, a man who has been working in policy circles since starting as a congressional aide in 1983:

Defense budgets: Lew is the key official behind the Obama administration’s two major decisions to cut defense spending. Last April, he managed the process that led to a last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling, which resulted in the Pentagon’s six-month review to find $450 billion in savings over ten years, compared to defense spending projections by the Congressional Budget Office. That deal also included the sequestration trigger, which looks set to force the Pentagon to find another $600 billion in savings because the bipartisan "super committee" couldn’t strike a deal.

"Make no mistake: the sequester is not meant to be policy. Rather, it is meant to be an unpalatable option that all parties want to avoid," Lew wrote at the time. As chief of staff, he will have an increased role in working with Congress to find a way around those cuts. He has also forcefully argued that Congress should not cut more from the federal budget than absolutely necessary.

Afghanistan: During his time at the State Department, Lew was the senior official responsible for the civilian surge in Afghanistan, which accompanied the administration’s 2009 military surge there. That increase, which added over 1,000 civilians from across the U.S. government to the Afghanistan mission, is slated to wind down this year along with the military surge. But as the United States shifts its focus in Afghanistan from military to civilian involvement, Lew might be the man in the government who knows that issue best.

His religion: Throughout Lew’s government career, he has maintained his commitment to Orthodox Judaism — including the rules about not working on the Sabbath, which stretches from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. During his time at State, he observed the Sabbath religiously and refused to work during those hours.

But if there was a real emergency at the White House, Lew could decide to break the Sabbath. He reportedly did that once when serving as OMB director for President Bill Clinton. After refusing to take an urgent phone call from Clinton, as the story goes, Clinton said over the speakerphone "I know it is the Sabbath, but this is urgent. G-d would understand." Lew consulted with his rabbi, who told him that it’s okay to answer the phone on the Sabbath when the president calls urgently.

Ethics: Lew is regarded by his peers as above reproach on ethical matters, but he did face one controversy when he reentered the White House as OMB director. In 2010, Lew came under fire because of a $944,578 bonus he took from Citigroup, where he was chief operating officer of Citigroup’s Alternative Investments from 2006. Lew had already disclosed a $1.1 million compensation package covering his Citigroup work in 2007, but the amount of the second bonus wasn’t disclosed until much later.

A State Department official defended Lew at the time as a man whose reputation for following ethics rules was well known. "If this city and government were filled with Jack Lews, we wouldn’t need ethics rules," the official said, "because, like Hebrew National, Jack holds himself accountable to a higher authority."

His replacement: One thing nobody knows about Jack Lew is who will replace him at OMB. The president’s 2012 budget request is being finalized right now, and its February release will kick start a whole season of squabbling and negotiating with Congress in what promises to be a partisan election year. Jeffrey Zients served as the acting director of the office before Lew was confirmed. Since then, Heather Higginbottom, former deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Counsel, was confirmed as OMB’s deputy director. Given the recent GOP outrage over Obama’s controversial recess appointment nomination of Richard Cordray to head the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, confirming a new OMB director won’t be an easy sell any time soon.