The Cable

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.


The Cable

State's first Twitter press conference angers Sudan activists

The State Department tried something new last Friday, answering selected questions posed via Twitter. Today, a Sudan human rights organization that was one of the selected questioners called the answer it got on Sudan policy "unconvincing," "unacceptable," "a broken record," and "condescending."

The Twitter press conference, where State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland will give answers to questions posed over Twitter following each Friday press briefing in January, is an experiment in State's ever-evolving strategy that it has dubbed "21st Century Statecraft."

Act for Sudan, an alliance of grassroots advocacy organizations, suggested one of the five tweets that was chosen and answered by Nuland, but the group is unhappy with the result.

The tweet, sent by @ObSilence but identical to the tweet suggested by Act for Sudan, was: "Why doesn't @StateDept support regime change in #Sudan where government-led genocide continues? Why Syria+Libya but not #Sudan?"

"Well, first of all, ObSilence, each country and each situation is different," Nuland responded. "But I will say that in Sudan, for many years, we have continued to press for concrete, meaningful, democratic reforms and accountability and an end to the violence. We have pushed hard for an end to the fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and a full resolution of the Darfur conflict. Those responsible for crimes and crimes against humanity have to be held accountable."

Nuland went on to say that normalization between the United States and Sudan could only progress when violence ends, and she called on the government to work with civilians to resolve their issues. She also acknowledged that "deplorable human rights conditions and unacceptable practices of bombing innocent civilians and denying humanitarian access continue."

Act for Sudan put out a release today saying that several of its members were wholly unsatisfied by that answer, and believed that Nuland sidestepped the question in a way that downplayed the tragedy of the human rights situation in Sudan.

"Of course, we realize that all countries and situations are different, but does the United States of America have no standards regarding its responsibilities in the face of genocide and crimes against humanity?" said Eric Cohen, an Act for Sudan spokesman.

"In Libya, with thousand of civilians in danger, President Obama rightly authorized limited military action to help protect them, and publicly called for Libya's brutal dictator to step aside," said Cohen. "Why then, with millions of civilians endangered in Sudan by their own government, is the U.S. not leading the international community in its responsibility to protect the people of Sudan, by all means necessary, including military options? Why are we not leading the call for the ouster of Sudan's president and his cronies, who are indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes?"

Act for Sudan coordinated an open letter in November signed by 66 organizations to President Barack Obama asking the United States to urgently address civilian protection and humanitarian assistance for Sudanese under attack by their own government. Among other recommendations, the letter asked Obama to instruct the National Security Council to accelerate decisions regarding protection of Nuba, Blue Nile, and Darfuri populations from air attacks and to seriously consider the destruction of offensive aerial assets and the imposition of a no-fly zone.  It also requests the immediate initiation of a cross-border emergency aid program to the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, Blue Nile and Abyei regions.

The Obama administration may be experimenting with unique ways to engage with the world through this Twitter press conference, but as this latest scuffle shows, social media remains a two-way street. And the Twitter world can now experience what reporters have known all along - answers given during press conferences rarely fully answer the question, much less satisfy the questioner.