Sylvia Mathews Burwell has been out of Washington for more than a decade, but President Obama’s pick to be his next budget director will see a familiar cast of characters if the Senate confirms her for the post.
Burwell served on President Bill Clinton’s economic team for his entire tenure, finishing as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. At the end of the administration, she left to to play a senior role at the Gates Foundation in Seattle and later became president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, where she oversees nearly $1 billion in annual gifts — cash and in-kind donations — to support childhood nutrition and other philanthropic activities.
If she returns as director of the OMB, she will work with people she knows well from the Clinton years. The Treasury secretary is her old OMB boss, Jack Lew. Obama’s top economic adviser in the White House is Gene Sperling, who also held that post in the Clinton era.
Burwell was part of the team that wrestled with congressional Republicans over the budget in the 1990s, but she left Washington at a time when endless budget surpluses dotted the horizon. As Obama’s top budget adviser, she would face a far murkier situation, given the nation’s challenging fiscal picture.
The government on Friday began implementing deep cuts to domestic and defense spending after Congress and the president failed to agree on alternative ways to reduce the deficit. Burwell would have to oversee the spending reductions, which members of both parties say are indiscriminate and fail to deal with the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges.
While a temporary truce over the budget makes a clash unlikely in coming weeks, both sides want to replace the $1.2 trillion in cuts, known as the sequester, for the long term. As a result, Burwell is likely to be a key negotiator in continuing debates over taxes and spending in months and years to come.
Obama is trying to get Congress to approve funding for investment in administration priorities such as early-childhood education and road and bridge construction, expenditures that would be offset by other cuts or higher taxes on the wealthy.
“The circumstances are different, but the basic requisites are the same,” said Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Treasury secretary, who tapped Burwell as his chief of staff in the 1990s. “Both President Clinton and President Obama were focused on putting in place a sound fiscal regime and putting in place public investment.”
Rubin said Burwell has ease with the wonky details of budgets and the political strategy needed to advance the White House’s interests. “She really is a combination of a lot of important attributes,” Rubin said. “She’s been around the policy issues and the content of the policy issues since the 1992 campaign.”
In a January interview with The Washington Post about Lew’s nomination to be Treasury secretary, Burwell said it is important in fiscal talks to be able to see the other side’s point of view. “One of the things about these kinds of negotiations is it’s important to understand your needs but also to understand the needs of those across the table,” she said.
Burwell’s history suggests she is a centrist Democrat in the mold of Rubin and other economic advisers to Obama and Clinton, whom she also served as deputy chief of staff.
“As the granddaughter of Greek immigrants, she also understands that our goal when we put together a budget is not just to make the numbers add up,” Obama said on Monday in nominating Burwell for the post. “Our goal is also to reignite the true engine of economic growth in this country, and that is a strong and growing middle class — to offer ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them.”
Burwell has drawn flak from the right and the left, but no significant opposition to her nomination was visible Monday. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) suggested he will use her confirmation hearing to criticize the administration’s budget policies.
“Sadly, under past leadership in this administration, the budget office has failed to be honest time and again,” he said in a statement. “This nation is in desperate need of strong and proven financial leadership and the OMB director is the primary person underneath the President charged with that task.”
The Nation, the liberal magazine, released a lengthy article this week criticizing Burwell’s stewardship of the Wal-Mart Foundation, alleging that it used its nonprofit status to further the company’s needs.