Saturday, March 28, 2009

Effective Habits from the Budget Man

A profile of Peter Orszag in NYT;

“He’s made nerdy sexy,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

Mr. Orszag, who grew up in Lexington, Mass., has always worked himself punishingly hard — a legacy, he says, from a math-professor father who glanced at test scores of 98 and asked about the 2 other points. “It was always, ‘When I was your age, I was a tenured professor,’ ” he said.

When he won a Marshall scholarship, his father congratulated him by admitting that the award was “not trivial.” Later he discovered that his father had once been turned down for the prize, which finances graduate study in Britain. (Mr. Orszag earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the London School of Economics.)

In classic political fashion, Mr. Orszag trained for Washington rivalry through family rivalry, not just with his father but also with his economist brothers. Peter, Michael and Jonathan Orszag have worked and written papers together and still compare electronic gadgets and their Princeton grade-point averages...

Friends say his dinner parties are notable for the meticulously chosen wines and the senators who attend. (Mr. Orszag, a divorced father of two, is so cozy with the Capitol Hill crowd that Senator Ron Wyden and his wife, Nancy Bass Wyden, found him a girlfriend.)...

So far, his main project has been the budget, drafted in meetings that began before the inauguration. For weeks after Mr. Obama took office, Mr. Orszag sat directly across the table from him in the Roosevelt Room. He began each session with a series of PowerPoint slides, defined the president’s options and constantly jotted down requests on notecards.

For someone with two BlackBerrys — work and personal — clipped to the small of his back, Mr. Orszag seems governed by little cards: the ones in his breast pocket for notes, another that lists his meetings, a tiny hand-lettered one that materializes to summon him to the Oval Office....

His own health care conversion occurred when a doctor told him several years ago that he was at risk for cardiovascular problems. Mr. Orszag changed his diet. Each day he eats the same egg whites for breakfast and salad topped with chicken for dinner, all from the White House mess.

He also began training for marathons, sometimes startling colleagues by appearing in their offices at day’s end in head-to-toe spandex.

Now he keeps two books on his desk: the teachings of Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who espoused dispassion and self-discipline, and “The Strenuous Life,” by Theodore Roosevelt, an ode to pushing oneself as hard as possible.

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