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Front-Page NYT Praise for Obama's 'Cliff' Negotiator, 'Policy Nerd' Who 'Morphs Into a Warrior' Defending the Poor

New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg profiled White House chief of staff and "fiscal cliff" negotiator Jacob Lew (who may be the next Treasury secretary) on Sunday's front page, calling the liberal Lew "a policy nerd" who "morphs into a warrior" when it comes to helping the poor. Yet he's also a "pragmatist," just like his boss Barack Obama, and also makes "a mean potato kugel."

When President Obama was locked in painful spending negotiations with House Republicans last spring, his exceedingly meticulous budget director, Jacob J. Lew, went to the Oval Office to propose some complex budget changes. As Mr. Lew delved deeper and deeper into the numbers, Mr. Obama put up his hand, signaling him to stop.

“Jack, it’s fine,” the president said, according to Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s economics adviser, who witnessed the exchange. “I trust your values. I trust your judgment on this.”

Today Mr. Lew is the White House chief of staff (and on the shortlist to become the next Treasury secretary), and Mr. Obama has entrusted him with an even bigger task: guiding the White House through potentially treacherous negotiations with Congressional Republicans to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts on Jan. 1, which economists warn could throw the country back into recession.

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At 57, Mr. Lew may be the most unassuming power broker in Washington. He is deeply religious (an Orthodox Jew, he leaves work each Friday before sundown) and is so strait-laced that his colleagues feel compelled to apologize when they curse in front of him. He brings his own lunch (a cheese sandwich and an apple) and eats at his desk.

With his owlish glasses and low-key manner, Mr. Lew may come off as just a policy nerd. But he is a fierce negotiator. When defending social safety net programs, particularly those like Medicaid that help the poor, he morphs into a warrior, Republicans say, though he has proved willing to make concessions.

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He has little use for Washington’s social scene; a check of newspaper archives going back to 1977 shows that Mr. Lew has never turned up in The Washington Post’s gossip column. His wife, Ruth, lives in their home in the affluent Riverdale section of the Bronx; they commute back and forth and have a daughter in Washington and a son in New York. He likes to cook; he makes a pretty good chicken soup (Ruth is in charge of the matzo balls) and a mean potato kugel.

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The challenge now for Mr. Lew -- and for Mr. Obama -- is to forge an agreement that does not cut too deeply into the entitlement programs that Democrats cherish. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Lew is a pragmatist; one person familiar with his thinking said he had previously expressed willingness to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, a move that many liberals oppose.