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Lion's Eye Favorite: Peter Orszag '87, OMB Director, Speaks at Exeter

500 people attended Orszag's talk. Students accompany him on the way to Assembly Hall, above.

July 6, 2010

Orszag enters the Academy BuildingPeter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, recently spoke to a packed Assembly Hall about his experiences at Exeter, and his route from high school to the nation's Executive Branch. During his talk, "From Main Street to the White House," Orszag, who lived in Main Street dorm during his PEA years, encouraged Exonians to "learn how to embrace risk" and blaze their own path. "Throw yourself at what you're doing," he told the students with passion. "When I was your age, I valued raw intelligence above all else," he said. He has discovered that "it's not smarts that count the most" but rather the "ability to overcome adversity."

Orszag, who went on to Princeton after graduating from Exeter, then to the London School of Economics as a Marshall Scholar, said that his years at Exeter were "the most challenging and rewarding educational experience I've had." They taught him the "value of hard work and doing your homework" as keys to leading a life with "active and hopefully well-informed engagement with the world." Exeter's core values of goodness and knowledge have stuck with this Exonian. He referred to the oft-cited line from Exeter's Deed of Gift – "though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous" – as a motto that he carries with him.

Orszag delivers his speech in Assembly HallOrszag peppered his talk with humor and direct references to his years at Exeter – including his first impression of the Harkness classroom, where one student gave a  "brilliant" poetry analysis, and the time he was put on probation.

Throughout, he reinforced the importance of his Exeter years. "I would not have been able to make the journey [to public service] without learning what I learned here." He said in conclusion, "Never forget your time at Exeter."

"I thought his presentation was excellent," says Teddy Schleifer '10, who contacted Orszag's office last November to convince the OMB director to return to Exeter after a 20-year absence. "I wanted Mr. Orszag to visit Exeter because he has an insider's perspective on what's truly going on in Washington, whether it's surrounding health care reform, financial regulation, or economic recovery. When it comes to budgetary issues, there's simply no one brighter than Mr. Orszag, and I thought that the student body could learn a great deal from his vantage point."

After Orszag's speech, students lined up to ask questions about policy, economics, personal development and Exeter experiences. Here are a few of the questions:

Q: "You're fairly well-known as a deficit hawk. Do you think it's more important to start with ideals and then figure out what's possible, or the other way around?"
A: Orszag seeks a "combination of hard head and soft heart." "We don't want to be just a bunch of softhearted, mushy thinkers, but on the other hand, the whole point of government is to make lives better. We need to remember that's the ultimate objective," he added.

Q: "What do you feel has been your most valuable contribution to President Obama's administration?"
A: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the health care overhaul .

Q: "What benefit did you get from working in the Washington Intern Program?"
A: "I learned how the Senate operated in a way I couldn't learn from a textbook," explained Orszag who, as a PEA student, interned in the office of Tom Daschle, former senator from South Dakota. "I learned that I liked it. I got a little bit of Potomac fever."

Q: "When and how did you decide to be involved in economics and politics?"
A: Orszag explained that his interest dates back to his time at Exeter, and was reinforced at Princeton and during this time in the U.K. as a Marshall Scholar.

Q: "During your time at Exeter and in your early career, did you ever have doubts? How did you deal with them?"
A: "I still have doubts," he responded. Orszag keeps on his desk a speech written by Theodore Roosevelt and a book of the teachings of Greek philosopher Epictetus which reinforce his conviction that "the only thing you can really control is your reaction to external events." 

Q: "Have you ever been intimidated by working with older people?"
A: Simple answer: not really. But, this youngest member of Obama's Cabinet added, "It takes awhile to get comfortable speaking forcefully in the Oval Office."

After 30 minutes of questions and answers, the evening ended with a standing ovation.

Principal Tom Hassan was struck by the strong connection Orszag made with the students. "It was wonderful to see the students ask insightful questions on so many topics. You could feel their excitement. Mr. Orszag was clear and straight to the point on every topic he addressed."

Schleifer, who introduced Orszag in Assembly Hall, was delighted that the OMB director was able to speak to so many Exonians. "His speech focused more on his time at Exeter, while the question-and-answer session delved deeper into some policy issues. The whole event had a nice balance: a good deal about what Exeter taught him combined with the stories and intrigue that comes with being President Obama's right-hand man."

During Orszag's visit to campus, he met briefly with students from a variety of political clubs and Exeter's student newspaper, The Exonian. He also met with a small group of faculty.

 Lion's note: this article first appeared on April 28, 2010.