Reuters is reporting that President Obama will nominate Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on Monday. Wait, who? Here are some key things to know about the woman who, if confirmed, will lead the White House’s fiscal policy.
1. She’s a Bill Clinton/Bob Rubin Democrat.
After two years in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and another two as an associate at the consulting firm McKinsey (which has also spawned Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, and former National Economic Council deputy director Diana Farrell), Burwell joined the Clinton campaign in 1992 and then led Clinton’s economic transition team upon his election. She arrived in the White House as staff director of the NEC in 1993.
In 1995, she followed then-NEC director Robert Rubin when he was appointed Treasury Secretary. She served as Rubin’s chief of staff from 1995 to 1997, when she moved back to the White House to serve as one of Clinton’s two deputy chief of staffs, the other being future Center for American Progress founder John Podesta. Podesta and Burwell worked under chief of staff Erskine Bowles, he of Bowles-Simpson fame. In 1998, Bowles left and Podesta was elevated to chief of staff, and Burwell moved to the OMB to serve as Jack Lew’s deputy director from 1998 to 2001.
Suffice to say, that experience left Burwell thoroughly familiar with the Democratic economic policy establishment, in which her boss of four years, Rubin, functions as an éminence grise. It also leaves her well-positioned to work with Lew, now Treasury Secretary, and Bowles, who continues to play a major role as a vocal deficit hawk. When a Seattle Times interviewer asked what people inspired her, Burwell included Rubin, who “always reached into an organization to hear directly from people,” and Bowles, who “taught me you attract more bees with honey.” Rubin told then-Post reporter John Harris in 1999, ”She’s very good at keeping an enormous amount of activity in motion.”
While beloved of Rubin and once and future NEC director Gene Sperling, Burwell was not universally popular. Harris reported, “Some chafed at her affinity for meetings, protocol and management jargon learned in a stint with the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm.” In her role running President Clinton’s dialogue on race relations, “Some participants complained that the effort bogged down in organizational and turf battles and had little substantive impact.”
But she has not served in a policy role since the Clinton years, apart from a short period advising the Obama transition team on federal deposit insurance issues.
2. She has experience fighting congressional Republicans on budget matters
As deputy OMB director, Burwell was involved in putting together the late ’90s budgets that included substantial surpluses. She butted heads with Republicans who delayed spending bills in 2000, saying, “We will sign short-term CRs as long as it takes to get the job done.”
Harris reported that Burwell, “is a liberal who favors spending on social programs for the disadvantaged, but she and those who work with her say that much of her day-to-day budget work is not particularly ideological or partisan in nature.”
3. She’s been in the foundation world ever since
Despite rumors, reported by Harris in the 1999 Post profile, that she was considering running for governor or other office in her native West Virginia, Burwell joined the nonprofit world upon Clinton leaving office. Her longest relationship thus far has been with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She served as executive vice president from 2001 to 2002, as chief operating officer from 2002 to 2006, and as president of the Global Development Program from 2006 to the end of 2011. Burwell was considered to replace Gates Foundation chief Patty Stonesifer upon her retirement in 2008, but was passed over for Microsoft executive Jeff Raikes. In late 2011, she was picked to lead the Walmart Foundation. See a complete timeline of Burwell’s career here.
The Walmart Foundation is entirely independent of the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic endeavor founded by the heirs to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s fortune. Its four areas of focus are domestic hunger, food sustainability, women’s economic development abroad, and assisting low-income Americans in the job market. It has pledged $2 billion to devote to the first goal from 2010 to 2015.
4. She may not be too independent of Wal-Mart’s other efforts
Wal-Mart is a controversial firm in Democratic and liberal circles, owing to its low wages and staunch opposition to unionization drives. Then again, there are those, like deputy NEC director Jason Furman, who’ve made the argument that the company lowers prices sufficiently to almost double poor peoples’ effective income, and are a net positive for the worst-off. This exchange between Furman and Wal-Mart critic Barbara Ehrenreich offers a good introduction to the debate.
This could make problems for Burwell, who is not totally divorced from Wal-Mart’s corporate concerns in her current role. The foundation’s holiday giving recipients, for example, were in part chosen in a process starting with nominations from store employees. There have been allegations from liberal critics that the company has used the Walmart Foundation to further Wal-Mart’s business interests. In an article in The Nation, Josh Eidelson and Lee Fang allege that the foundation donated to the NAACP and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz to sway them to support or stop opposing (respectively) the creation of a Wal-Mart store in Brooklyn. The incident predates Burwell’s appointment to the foundation, and Wal-Mart told Eidelson and Fang that its giving is unrelated to public policy considerations.
5. The position has been vacant for a year.
We haven’t had a permanent OMB director since Jack Lew left to become White House chief of staff on Jan. 27, 2012. Jeff Zients has been acting director since then, as he had been between when Peter Orszag left in mid-2010 and Lew arrived at the end of that year. His position had become so entrenched that Obama nominated — and the Senate confirmed — Heather Higginbottom as deputy director, even though Zients’s name was never submitted to become director permanently. Update: the first version of this article mistakenly said Higginbottom replaced Zients as deputy director. She was deputy director and he was and is deputy director for management, a separate position. We apologize for the error.
6. She’s a female voice in an administration lacking them
Earlier this year, the Obama administration came in for harsh criticism for the male domination of its highest offices. Burwell’s appointment rebuts that to some degree. If confirmed, she will be only the second woman to lead the OMB. Alice Rivlin served as director from 1994 to 1996.