Soft-spoken OMB official Robert Gordon has the ear of Obama’s chief of staff


When the nation approaches a “fiscal cliff” this fall, President Obama will send a handful of trusted officials to Capitol Hill to tangle with Republicans on taxes and spending and try to avoid an economic disaster.

Robert Gordon will almost certainly be among them.

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Gordon, the self-effacing executive associate director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), helped Jack Lew negotiate the August budget deal that kept the country from defaulting on its debts. He was also involved in the agreement that Lew negotiated in April to avoid a government shutdown.

Lew has since left his post as OMB director to become President Obama’s chief of staff, but he is again expected to take the lead as the White House and lawmakers grapple with the bevy of tax increases and spending cuts that are set to begin in January.

“I expect I will be involved again,” Gordon told The Hill.

Sources inside the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill said Gordon helps Lew think through negotiating tactics while serving as a filter for ideas from career OMB staff.

“Robert may not be a top negotiator, but he is preparing an awful lot of the material for the top negotiators, and they are reviewing options with him in between negotiating sessions,” said Robert Greenstein, an ally at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The “fiscal cliff” is a term used to describe the numerous policy issues that loom for Congress after the election, including $109 billion in sequestered budget cuts, the expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax rates, scheduled cuts to Medicare payments and the end of the payroll tax cut, among many others. 

In an interview with The Hill, Gordon emphasized his desire for bipartisan action and his view that budget fights are about helping Americans meet their potential.

“A lot of times in my life, I have worked with Republicans,” Gordon said. “I hope that at some point, we will have the opportunity to work together again during this administration.”

Gordon was and still is an education policy reformer first, and he has embraced ideas hated by teachers unions. 

He has advocated reforming the No Child Left Behind education law and will likely be part of any effort to reauthorize it after the election. For now, he is spearheading an effort at OMB, with roots in Republican thinking, to impose quality control on other education programs.

But Gordon’s desire for bipartisanship doesn’t keep him from throwing a few sharp elbows at Republicans as the White House fights to keep spending on education, infrastructure and energy from being slashed. 

He sees the House GOP’s budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which slashes spending without raising taxes, as a threat to important social programs. 

“Honestly, I’d be happier if we were not confronting a budget as radical and wrong-headed as the Ryan budget,” he said. “If you go in the direction of the Ryan resolution, whether or not you could sustain Head Start for one year, there is no way on earth you could sustain Head Start over time or Pell Grants, or worker training. You just can’t afford any of it.

“Our great promise as a country is that everyone has a chance to succeed,” he said. “If you drive around Washington, D.C., or New York, you see so many people who have potential that they are not getting a chance to realize … and you can do the same thing in West Virginia,” he said. “Government is never going to do everything to change that, but it has a very important role to play.”

Gordon said his role in last spring’s shutdown crisis was guarding key social and economic programs from indiscriminate cuts.

“And that involved a tremendous amount of work not just by me, but a lot of career folks on figuring out where we could cut,” he said.

Gordon is a veteran of the Clinton administration and joined Obama’s team after being recommended for the job by Lew. 

“I wasn’t terribly involved in the campaign, but I knew a lot of folks here from prior parts of my life,” he said.

Peter Orszag, Obama’s first budget director, hired Gordon as a deputy in charge of education spending.

Once at OMB, Gordon was able to reconnect with Lew and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, two other veterans of the Clinton administration, and by 2011 had been elevated to what is now the No. 3 position at OMB.

“It’s nice and meaningful to have had these mentors for a really long time,” he said of his colleagues.

The Clinton veterans have little time to socialize due to their demanding schedules, and Gordon said he devotes what free time he does get to his wife and children.

Gordon’s membership in elite Democratic policy circles began after he volunteered for Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992.

An initial supporter of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Gordon won an essay contest in college that allowed him to spend a day campaigning with Clinton in Rochester, N.Y. That led to a campaign position.

“It was not the most exciting job. It was going through boxes of Arkansas stuff. I met people there that I still see today,” he said.

Gordon served as an aide during the Clinton years and helped run the AmeriCorps program. Later, he was instrumental in reforming the New York City school system under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chancellor, Joel Klein.

After that, he served as domestic policy adviser for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign and the 2008 John Edwards campaign.

Now, at OMB, he’s gearing up for battle over the country’s fiscal future, and doesn’t mince words when asked about Ryan’s budget plan.

“It’s wrong to claim to be a truth teller and then hide the truth about what budget cuts inevitably mean,” he said.

“You have this massive cut in discretionary spending but no specifics about what it would mean. And whenever someone says what it will mean, you get the answer ‘Oh, we didn’t mean that.’ ”

Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney said Gordon’s statements were baseless. It is the Ryan budget, he said, that “puts government spending on a sustainable path, ensures critical programs can deliver on their promise, and fosters economic growth and job creation.”

“These same tired attacks expose the desperation and intellectual bankruptcy of a White House without a record of accomplishment to run on and without any credible solutions to the economic hardships millions of Americans continue to endure,” he said.

The central battleground in the coming fight over the 12 annual appropriations bills for fiscal 2013 is likely the legislation for Labor, Education and Health and Human Services.

Gordon said he does not see the House GOP getting the $8 billion cut it is seeking to labor and education programs, and believes the White House and Senate will stop the GOP from lowering 2013 discretionary spending by an additional $19 billion compared to the August debt deal.

He said there is irony in Republicans pushing to cut programs such as Race to the Top and other “evidence-based initiatives” that are meant to reform the schools and reduce waste in education.

“In the beginning I thought that this was a place that Republicans and Democrats could agree on,” he said.

For Gordon, it all comes back to government playing a key role in improving people’s lives. He said he doesn’t buy the conservative argument that government needs to step out of the way for that to happen.

“Personally, I was very fortunate in my own life, and I have always felt the responsibility to do my part,” he said. “I came from wonderful parents … plenty of resources … It is not stuff that everyone can take for granted.”



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