April 7, 2022

Jacob Lew was confirmed as treasury secretary by the U.S. Senate in February 2013; he would hold the position through the conclusion of the Obama administration in January 2017. Lew had previously served as White House chief of staff and, before that, as director of the Office of Management and Budget—a position he first held under President Clinton from 1998 to 2001. Before he returned to OMB in 2010, Lew initially served in the Obama administration as deputy secretary of state for management and resources.

Lew—who is widely known as Jack—joined SIPA’s faculty as a visiting professor in February 2017. In spring 2022 he taught Democratic Institutions Under Stress, which explores the core principles of constitutional democracy, beginning with a close reading of the United States’ founding documents, and proceeding through the key institutions, from citizenship and elections to the branches of government, the role of the military and a free press.

The following interview was conducted by Leigh Nusbaum MPA-DP ’22 and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you decide to come to SIPA to teach and why do you like teaching here?

I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I taught at NYU, and it was important to me that in the mix of things I did after public service was working with students and faculty and being part of the bridge between the educational process and the policy process. SIPA has been a great place to do it, because the focus of SIPA is about bridging the academic world and the world of policy. So, it’s a place where there’s a high value placed on being in an academic community.

This is the first time you’ve taught a class titled Democratic Institutions Under Stress. In the past, your courses focused more on economic policy issues.

For the first three years, I was teaching a class on economic policy making. It’s something that I have spent a lot of time on, in the policy world. I enjoy presenting students with real-world economic policy problems and working through how to tackle that with the tools that they’ve learned in their master’s programs. 

For the last two years I’ve also been teaching, with Ira Katznelson, in the Obama Scholars program [at the University]. We decided last year to focus on the institutions of democracy because the Obama Scholars are coming from around the world, many from countries where there are real threats to personal freedom and to elected governments. There’s a real interest in understanding the fundamentals of democracy.

I remember talking last year with Dean Janow, who observed that this was very much on the minds of SIPA students. We can’t take for granted that people come out of high school, college, or graduate school having thought about democratic institutions in a rigorous way.

I basically took the curriculum that we developed for the Obama Scholars and turned it into more of a traditional course [at SIPA]. And the fact that the class was oversubscribed by about a hundred percent or more suggests that it touches a nerve right now, given the situation around the world and even in the United States over the course of our own last election cycle.

The January 6 Insurrection certainly lingers in all of our minds. As someone who worked in the Capitol for the then speaker of the House, the late Tip O’Neill, can you discuss what went through your mind on that day? 

Like so many Americans I felt shock and outrage, but it was more personal. When you heard descriptions of places and they were places that you spent 10 years of your life, rooms and corridors, and back-ways that you knew, because you grew up there. When there was a shooting, when the protestors were trying to break into what is called the Speaker’s Lobby, that was 50 feet from my desk.

And so, it was very much a personal sense of how could this ever happen? But I actually don’t think my reaction was different than people who never stepped foot in the building, because whether it’s on a visit to Washington or looking at a picture of the Capitol dome lit up at night, there is something inspiring about the place and the idea of the place. And it was a low point in so many ways in terms of the political climate in this country that this could ever happen. I think it was a wakeup call to a lot of people that we have to think about these institutions and not take them for granted.

The class readings are split into two sections—original founding documents, various amendments, Federalist papers, and other historical documents and articles about current and recent events. Can you talk about the decision process when you were planning the class?

In all of the classes that I’ve taught, whether it’s economic policy or in this course on democratic institutions, I’ve tried to focus on real-life policy issues, not just abstract or historical analysis. I hope over the semester, it will be clear to everyone in the class that these are very much living issues and the history and the documents are very much living documents. Even, the idea that you would sit in the offices I’ve sat in, in the roles that I’ve had in government and these ideas would infuse how you thought about what you needed to do: how you would advise the speaker of the House or the president of the United States, how you would exercise your responsibility as a member of the Cabinet. I wanted that to come alive in a way that you can’t do if you just study history.

I can tell you from my own experience that when a president of the United States wants to do something, and doesn’t have full discretion to do what he or she wants to do, your goal is to figure out how you can get it done.

Different presidents might have different goals, but let’s stipulate that they’re trying to do the right thing. It’s not an easy thing to tell a president, “If you do that, it would set a bad precedent because either it will go to court and you might lose, or it might open the door to other people chipping away at some of the important separation of functions that are there for a purpose.”

I’ve been in the position where that’s come up on many occasions where what you wanted to do wasn't available and you had to decide, do you do what you can do? Or do you just decide to frame it as a kind of political or a policy debate and shape an election around it and get Congress to act? If you end up in a place where policy makers don’t consider that trade off, it can ultimately undermine the institutions because respect for democratic institutions often comes from voluntary compliance, when the players in the system know where the boundaries are. In extreme cases, we ultimately rely on the courts to check behavior that goes far beyond the boundaries, but most often the boundaries endure because policy makers take care not to step over the lines.

Can you talk about how you modified the class to respond to changing world events like the war in Ukraine?

I think, in general, you can’t ignore the world around you. Certainly at an international public affairs school, the ivory tower doesn’t obscure what’s going on in the real world. When Russia invaded Ukraine and we were in the middle of a war in Europe, there were questions about what the United States should do and how the United States should respond.

It also raised questions that were right at the heart of what we were studying in the class. What is national sovereignty? How do people choose to govern themselves? How do nations define themselves? So rather than stick to the curriculum that was planned for the day, I decided that we would take as much time as we needed for people to have a place to ask those questions and discuss what was going on in the world and hopefully tie it to what we were doing in the class.

You’ve been at the center of political decisionmaking. What is your advice to SIPA students who aspire to those roles?

I always advise students and young professionals, when they ask for advice, to focus not on their ultimate dream or goal, but to focus on each of the steps they’re taking and to ask a series of questions. Because if they can answer these questions, things will lead naturally in the right direction. When you’re going into a job, ask—Is it interesting? Are you going to grow as a person by what you learn in terms of the subject matter or the process? Will you be working with people you respect and that you want to spend your days with?

And if the answer to those questions is right, ultimately there’s no guarantee you become a cabinet member or the highest ranking official in an agency. But there is the certainty that you’re going to grow and have a chance to contribute to policymaking.

It’s a meritocracy. If you stand out, you get more opportunities. I had an unusual array of opportunities for which I’m grateful, and I was lucky. But, if I had not gone all the way to the top, if I had been a deputy [secretary] or an undersecretary, and I had a chance to shape an important policy, that would’ve been a successful career as well. I think it’s a mistake to define careers as only being rewarding and worthwhile if you make it all the way to the top. An awful lot of people who are in positions significantly lower in the hierarchy have had an enormous impact on the affairs of the United States and the world, and could leave an imprint that would make a bigger difference than in most walks of life.

I think you have to enter it with a combination of aspiration and humility. To me, the aspiration should be to have the privilege to work on the important issues of the day and the privilege is to be recognized for it and to get more opportunities and take the road where it leads you.

In addition to having these opportunities, they also come with some very high-pressure situations. What is your advice for students about working in high-pressure and high-stress jobs?

You know, the stress in many of the positions that I’ve had and that students are likely to find themselves in is not well understood outside of government. I don’t think there’s an adequate public appreciation of how hard people work and how stressful it is. There are deadlines. There are high stakes. There are competing views. No one gets to make decisions all on their own.

There’s a process that sometimes feels endless because you’re corralling different parties and positions to an outcome. I think it’s important for people to protect a certain amount of their lives, for the things that give them the ability to recharge their batteries. For some people, it’s a sport. For some people, it’s their kids. For some people it’s a hobby they are passionate about.

I actually think throwing yourself into these positions and leaving no space to recharge your batteries and maintain yourself leads to burnout. If I didn’t have things that I was always able to stick to that were in my life and didn’t affect my work responsibilities, I don’t know that I would’ve lasted eight years in two presidential administrations. It’s different for different people, how to do that.

I also think it’s important not to take yourself too seriously, because it’s not really about you. Most of the time in public service, it’s about what you’re doing. Some of the things that feel like enormous blows in a day, like when you’re young and you don’t get invited to the meeting, it feels like your world came to an end. Ten years later, you don’t remember it! It’s about keeping things in perspective. Doing what you can to not go down rabbit holes of frustration is helpful actually, because a lot of the stress is that things are hard, they matter, they’re consequential and you’re personally very wound up about what your role in it is. Just maintaining some humility about it takes the stress level down a bit.

I’ve always said to people that, as you rise in the hierarchy, it’s important to remember that you don’t leave with a title. You leave as yourself. Titles are nice and having people respect the position you hold makes you feel like you’ve accomplished a certain level. But when you leave the position, it isn’t what defines you. It’s you that defines you and you can’t leave yourself behind. It doesn’t mean you don’t work hard. No matter how much you can preserve little islands for yourself, if you’re working at the White House, if you’re working for a committee of Congress or a leader in Congress, if you are working in a diplomatic post where there’s a crisis, you’re going to be working long days and it’s going to be stressful.

But it doesn’t mean that you can't keep commitments that are important to you. So to me, it’s not exactly a work-life balance, because work is a bigger part of it than life, but you can’t let life turn to zero.

That advice really resonated with me.

It doesn’t mean that you can never say, “Well, I don’t have time for that.” It’s a bit of a double standard. What it means is, when you don’t have to be going at 150 percent of speed, you have got to take a step back and remember that those are the times to make sure that you do the other things. It can’t be that every day is a crisis because every day isn’t. There’s some tendency for people to feel like they’re not important unless every day is a crisis. That’s the thing you really have to resist. I don’t recall there being a real crisis that I didn’t attempt to deal with, but not everything is a crisis.

Sometimes students come to graduate school feeling a bit jaded about political processes or current events. How do you stay optimistic about the future?

I’ve always been an optimist. Part of it is that when you’re making progress, even if it’s less than you expected, it’s still moving in the right direction. And when things don’t go the way you want, you can dust yourself off and get back into the fray and get things back on the right path and start to see progress again. 

The last couple of years have been harder in terms of maintaining an optimistic outlook. The rancor of the political process has reached a frighteningly harsh stage. But, I don’t think we can accept that that’s a permanent reality and it won’t change itself. It will only change if people who care, engage in the process and make it better. It doesn’t mean that the threats and the negative pressure will go away, but your job isn’t to make everything perfect.

There were many years of my professional career when things weren’t going the way I liked. And the younger I was, the more I thought it would never be reversed, but after a while you realize that there is a bit of a pendulum, and if you’re not on the field, you don’t get to be there to move it in the right direction.

You have to be willing to tolerate disappointments, but not accept that each disappointment is the end of the story. You also have to believe ultimately in the goodness of the country and the American people, and that even at moments when the country’s veering in a direction that’s hard to comprehend, that is not where everyone is. It’s where some people are. And that there’s a way to reach the people who want to move things in what you believe is the right direction. 

It is also important to remember that not all policy differences are a choice between good and evil – sometimes it’s just policy differences. If you think that people who disagree with you are evil, it’s a lot harder than if you think they’re wrong. Some behavior you can’t sugarcoat, but on many policy disagreements you can live to fight another day. What you have to do is figure out how to reach people and communicate to advance things to a better place.

I find the ability to almost always make incremental progress, even in a difficult situation—something that makes me continue to be hopeful about bigger change in a positive direction in the future. I don’t think the process ever ends. It’s a democracy and policies are a work in progress. If you think that you have a chance to make a difference, in your moment, it’s hard not to be optimistic about taking that opportunity.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve noticed from SIPA students in your time teaching here?

It was the response to COVID, at least in some ways. Students evinced a deep desire to be connected to each other and to the class and the institution under circumstances that were very isolating and hard to comprehend.

None of us had ever gone through it before. To the extent that there’s kind of a wall of any kind, that is between people, I felt it came down a bit during that period. Even though we switched to Zoom and we did our classes far apart from each other, I felt that people were holding onto the hours on the screen in a different way than I ever did in a classroom, because the connectivity to each other was important in a different way.

Photo credit: Sirin Samman