As Deputy Treasury Secretary, Mr. Wolin generally stayed behind the scenes, though when he did appear in public he displayed a penchant for humor. “Mr. Wolin is relentlessly cheerful,” said a New York Times story in 2010. “He laughs at his penchant for legalese. At a recent press briefing, he said the White House would resist efforts to weaken consumer finance protections. ‘A carve-out for auto dealers would be sort of a paradigmatic example of such a weakening move,’ he said.
“‘It would be a what example?’ one reporter asked.
“‘A good example,’ he replied.”
During his long stint as Deputy Secretary – the longest in Treasury history – Mr. Wolin served as Chief Operating Officer, essentially managing the department, including a unit charged with combating terrorist financing. That responsibility sent him to places like Pakistan, Yemen and West Africa. When Mr. Wolin proposed pressuring Afghanistan to monitor and regulate Kabul Bank, the nation’s largest bank, much of the federal government resisted, citing the bank’s close ties to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, a US ally. But President Obama backed Mr. Wolin, who met with Mr. Karzai to start a process that led to reforms of the bank.
In 2013, with the recovery in its fourth year, Mr. Geithner left the Treasury. In the acknowledgements section of the memoir he published the next year, Mr. Geithner wrote: “Neal Wolin, who parachuted in at a fraught time as deputy secretary, was my closest adviser on the most important challenges we faced, all while helping to manage the vast Treasury empire. He ably represented Treasury around the world and across the street in the White House Situation Room, where the National Security Council met constantly.”
Mr. Wolin was planning to leave the Treasury around the same time. But President Obama asked him to stay on to serve as acting Secretary of the Treasury until Jack Lew was confirmed as the next secretary. When Mr. Wolin left the Treasury later that year, President Obama said in a statement to the Washington Post that Mr. Wolin’s “deep knowledge and excellent judgment helped us … pass tough new Wall Street reform, strengthen our financial system, foster growth here at home, and promote economic development around the world.”
Looking back at his decision to leave The Hartford for the Obama administration, Mr. Wolin says the terrifying state of the economy at that moment was part of the attraction. “If you have public policy or public service as part of your DNA, it was an irresistible moment to go serve,” he says.
Mr. Wolin says the experience helped prepare him for his current role as CEO of Brunswick, a firm that offers crisis counsel. “Government is a good training ground for crisis,” says Mr. Wolin. “You’re under a lot of time pressure. You’re under a lot of scrutiny. There are vast numbers of stakeholders each with their own perspectives on what ought to be the right answer or the preferred path. And the domains of policy, politics and communications are necessarily deeply intertwined.”
Since leaving government, Mr. Wolin hasn’t spoken much publicly about his Treasury experience, though in 2015 he delivered a speech about it to seniors at his alma mater, Evanston Township High School, just north of Chicago. Student blogger Ben Osterlund, writing about the speech, outlined Mr. Wolin’s message and his legacy in a few words: “His perspective included details on what it was like to handle the financial crisis while working in the Treasury. Wolin and others at Treasury acted to put in place policy that would avoid a complete meltdown, and set the economy on a healthy path so such a crisis wouldn’t happen again.”
Kevin Helliker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is Editor in Chief of the Brunswick Review. He is based in New York.
Top photograph: Courtesy of the US Department of the Treasury
Bottom photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images