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Can Jack Lew Do for Obama What AmeriCorps Did for Clinton?

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When the son of an Israeli Irgun member, left the White House to run for mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel left a void not quite filled by his replacement Bill Daley.  In many respects Daley was not able to fill the shoes for the President.  He could not get the respect of those he needed on the Hill and even within the Administration to be an effective advocate for Mr. Obama.  So when Daley seemingly abruptly resigned this week, there was no hesitation before New Yorker, and perennial Washington insider Jack Lew, and someone identified as an Orthodox Jew, was called on to step in.

Lew makes for an interesting choice for Mr. Obama, as he is one who has the respect of both sides.  He comes with impressive credentials stemming from his days working for Democratic Congressman Joe Moakley and the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill.  More recently, he was an executive at Citicorp where he ran a group that made alternative investments, such as hedge funds, credit swaps and other creative financial mechanisms that people such as the President say has hurt the economy. 

Lew served as Clinton's Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and also served as a member of the National Security Council.  A feature that might be helpful for Mr. Obama is that while at OMB, the U.S. budget saw a surplus for three years in a row.

Lew is an accomplished man with good intution, and he understands budgets and fiscal prudence. Maybe that's why he was chosen. Going into what may be a harsh re-election campaign, Mr. Obama may be seeking to bolster his credibility among those who feel he has not done a good job on the economic front. As someone who designed Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, a program that helped and continues to create jobs, opportunity, hope and civic pride, perhaps Lew was brought in to develop the next best thing for a struggling administration.

There is also the added factor of Lew's religious background. The President has made it a point to demonstrate just how important his Jewish base is to him, and has put a number of Jews onto his cabinet and senior positions throughout Washington. Yet, when Mayor Emanuel served as Chief of Staff, his pedigree aside, some among the electorate felt that maybe he was the wrong Jewish soul to be whispering into the ear of the leader of the free world about Israel and its fate.

Lew, on the other hand, is considered an orthodox Jew who keeps the Shabbat, allegedly even when President Clinton called and begged him over an answering machine to pick up his phone. He is a dedicated member of the Riverdale Jewish Center, which put forth prominent champion of Jewish causes and of Israel, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. 

So is this an effort to show that Mr. Obama is indeed the best friend Israel has ever had?

Natan Sharansky, Refusnik and Chairman of the Jewish Agency said about Lew, "For him, it's not just another country. His faith and bond with Israel and the Jewish people is an important part of his life." The Orthodox Union applauded the pick, and the National Jewish Democratic Council issued a statement saying that "Lew has lived his Jewish values every day."

With the recent departure of Dennis Ross, former Mideast and Iran policy adviser to Mr. Obama, Lew might be seen as the "Jewish" replacement. Ross commented on Lew saying he is "very systematic and he has a very good way with people." That Ross needed to comment at all could be seen as indicative as a key purpose of Lew's appointment. However, Aish asks in an article whether an observant Jew in a position of national power is good for the Jews.

That, indeed, may be a good question. Having a person so strongly positioned as a Jew may lead to broader issues that Jews throughout the centuries have dealt with when anguished multitudes seek to lay blame for troubled times.

Still, the appointment of Jacob Lew to the position of Chief of Staff seems more a way to solve a multitude of issues at once for President Obama. He is abundantly qualified for the role, and can lay claim to helping negotiate with Congress last year to avoid the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. He has the respect of the business community as well as many who stand on the opposite side of the aisle in Congress, and with Americorps, he has true credentials for those looking to the government to help improve education and career opportunities for young Americans. He's a bona fide Democrat who can easily straddle the right on fiscal matters.

Sure he is Jewish and comes with solid credentials for the faith, and perhaps on Israel too, yet the Jewish groups that did comment may be wrong in touting just how Jewish he is.

If Mr. Obama appointed a new member of his cabinet, who was dubbed Obama's Moslem or Obama's Christian, Jews, atheists and even others from various faiths might not be so comfortable with the appointment. Religious credentials in Conservative circles often bring concern from the left, and someone with Lew's Jewish qualifications may cause some concern within liberal circles, where Mr. Obama finds his base.

Notwithstanding his religion, Jacob Lew is the consummate political insider who has more than three decades navigating Congress and the beltway with good results under his belt. He has proven his service to presidents, is well liked on The Hill and respected by the financial community.

If the President did choose him for his Jewishness, it may backfire. In the end, it will not be the friends the president has or the appointments he makes that matters to the electorate. The President will be judged in November by the actions he has taken and the work he has done for the country and the people of the United States. If his record on Israel is seen as a good one, Lew's appointment may only enhance that. However, if his record is not viewed in high regard, Lew's appointment might just be seen as window dressing for an ugly house.

The country and Jews in America too are better off looking at Lew as an American public servant who has devoted a large part of his life to public service on behalf of the entire Union.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR agency, 5W Public Relations .

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Juda Engelmayer is the president of HeraldPR and Emerald Digital, and now a managing partner with Converge Public Strategies. His expertise are in the Corporate communications/Public Affairs/Crisis Communications areas of Public Relations, and (more...)

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