News & Politics

Stepping Out

Peter Orszag's leaving the administration—and one of the harder jobs in Washington.

If Gen. Stanley McChrystal hadn't spectacularly defenestrated himself from the Obama administration's good graces, and perhaps from government service via Rolling Stone interview this morning, the big news of the political day would have come from much less flashy quarters. The news also broke this morning that Peter Orszag, head of the Office of Management and Budget, will leave the administration next month, making him the first member of Obama's cabinet to depart.

There are a lot of reasons Orszag's departure isn't surprising. Cabinet turnover is inevitable, as is burnout from a long campaign followed by the dismaying aftermath of governing. If Orszag wanted to leave government to spend more time with his family or to make more money supporting them, he has better reasons than most: he has two daughters by his first marriage, recently had a daughter with a former girlfriend, and is engaged to be married this fall. Without passing judgment, it's a complicated situation, and if Orszag wanted to earn more in fewer hours each week, he certainly can't be blamed for trying to do right by everybody.

But being Office of Management and Budget director is also a particularly vexed position. Cabinet secretaries have to develop expertise across a wide range of programs in a single, broadly-defined subject area—the OMB director must be prepared to lead teams that evaluate all of those programs across all of those subject areas. And while he's doing that, he must also convince departments to comply with directives related to the overall functioning of government, as Orszag did last year by telling departments to submit data on their hiring practices along with their budget requests. To a certain extent, the OMB director and the director of the Office of Personnel Management act like the chief operating officers for large companies, taking unexciting but critical issues like pay, personnel policy, and performance management off the plates of other cabinet-level executives. And, as my former colleague Robert Brodsky wrote in his summation of Orszag's tenure today, "Orszag has become one of the key public faces of the administration's economic policy, appearing on everything from Sunday morning news shows to Comedy Central's The Daily Show."

That's a lot for one man to handle, and another reason Orszag might have wanted to step aside. Stressful work is even harder when you can't focus on any one aspect of it. By leaving in June, he gives a replacement time to master his set of tasks, and to put their own stamp on the biggest one of all: the Obama administration's next budget.

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