Chris Lu this week might face a task more daunting than his four years as President Obama’s Cabinet Secretary: convincing college students of the value of public service, even as a federal shutdown sends public distrust of government skyrocketing.
Lu, 47, from January 2009 through this past February was the main liaison between the president and his executive departments and agencies; Obama called him “one of my longest-serving and closest advisors.”
He’s speaking Tuesday evening at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, and then again at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in at San Jose State University’s Morris Dailey Auditorium.
And with Obama and House Republicans in stalemate, large swaths of the federal government shut down, and an Oct. 17 deadline for raising the nation’s debt limit and staving off economic chaos, Lu might be glad he’s 2,400 miles away from Washington.
“I’m optimistic that cooler heads will prevail… but candidly I can’t see the path forward at this point,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “It is hard for me to see what the exit strategy is, and I think that’s unfortunate.”
He said House Republicans first wanted to defund the Affordable Care Act, then to delay it, and now might be making demands about other spending instead, he said.
“It’s hard to negotiate when the other side’s demands keep changing,” he said, noting the shutdown in 1995-96 was over budget issues on which it was easier to settle by splitting the difference. “Here there is obviously some money involved, but the president has made clear he’s not negotiating over defunding Obamacare … or on the debt limit, either.”
Lu defended the glitchy rollout of enrollment in health insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. It’s an extremely complex system in which more than half the states have refused to cooperate, leaving the federal government to do it for them, he said.
“This was always going to be challenging, but what I am optimistic about is – to the extent that there were glitches in the first week – the glitches were a result of too many people going online,” he said, which is a far better problem than having too few people interested. “The president made clear this was not going to be a smooth rollout, that there would be glitches along the way, but we’ve got multiple months to work it out.”
“Even in the best of times, encouraging people to go into public service and work in the government is a tall order,” he said, but it’s moreso when a shutdown situation like this breeds rampant distrust of government. People outside of Washington aren’t immersed in partisan bickering and “they don’t understand why the government isn’t running, why people can’t sit down and talk these things out and reach some kind of compromise.”
But college campuses still offer some hope, he said. “I still think young people get the value of service… of thinking beyond themselves and looking to help others.”
Lu and Obama attended Harvard Law School at the same time and became good friends when Lu joined Obama’s U.S. Senate staff. He was Obama’s legislative director in the Senate, and was named executive director of Obama’s transition team after his election in 2008. As Cabinet Secretary, he was one of the administration’s highest-ranking Asian-Americans and also co-chaired the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Since leaving the White House, Lu has been a fellow at the University of Chicago and at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.