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Why Is Orszag Leaving?

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber]

Let's stipulate that there will always be some amount of lurid speculation when a cabinet official exits—probably more so for the first cabinet-level official to depart an administration. But my hunch is that Obama budget director Peter Orszag is bowing out this summer for pretty pedestrian reasons.

First the lurid speculation, such as it is: It’s true that Orszag sometimes clashed with fellow members of the Obama economic team. In particular, there was at times a rivalry between Orszag’s OMB and Larry Summers's National Economic Council. For example, in December I  reported that:

Last month, Orszag raised eyebrows when word leaked that he’d asked most cabinet agencies to prepare two budgets: one that freezes spending, the other that cuts it by 5 percent. Many congressional liberals were livid, and, according to multiple sources, Larry Summers’s National Economic Council reacted negatively to the emphasis on the deficit. (“The economic team has a healthy debate about most major issues,” says an administration official. “Getting people back to work is central to addressing the deficit. Similarly, putting the country back on a fiscally sustainable path is vital to confidence in the economy.”)

But my sense is that while the debate over how to weight additional stimulus versus deficit reduction continues within the administration, these policy differences aren’t the reason Orszag is leaving. If nothing else, the press reports stress that Obama wanted Orszag to stick around, something I’ve heard independently. To the extent that members of the economic team hold somewhat different policy views, I get the impression the president likes it that way, as the administration official quoted above suggests.

As I understand it, the reason Orszag has decided to step aside now is that the upside to sticking around just wasn’t that great after he’d successfully overseen two budget cycles and helped manage a once-in-a-generation healthcare reform effort. (To say nothing of that stimulus bill…) What you have to understand about Orszag is that he’s an extremely bright guy who’s excited by intellectual, as opposed to, say, managerial, challenges. What you have to understand about being OMB director is that it’s an incredibly taxing job—there’s a huge amount of work that has to get done in a short period of time, year in and year out. Put that together and what you had was a grueling job that Orszag found pretty exhilarating when the learning curve was steep, and which became a little less exhilarating but no less grueling once the learning curve flattened out. Between that dynamic and his impending wedding in September, which roughly coincides with the start of the new budget season, it makes perfect sense for him to hang his slide rule elsewhere.

Update: I shouldn't minimize the role of Orszag's upcoming marriage. He is known to be very devoted to his fiancee, which makes the decision not to sign on for another grueling year all the more understandable.