Obama's Behind-the-Scenes Budget Warrior

By Crabtree, Susan | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, October 3, 2013 | Go to article overview

Obama's Behind-the-Scenes Budget Warrior


Crabtree, Susan, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama's budget director, is at ground zero of the government shutdown showdown, but you wouldn't know it from the headlines.

During previous budget standoffs with Republicans, Office of Management and Budget directors would be front and center, publicly pushing the administration's case. Jack Lew, who served 2 years in the post before becoming Obama's chief of staff and then Treasury Secretary, was a familiar face on the talk shows and at White House press briefings.

Burwell, a 47-year-old West Virginia native known for her modesty, is taking a far more behind-the-scenes approach. Her most public contribution to the government funding debate came in the form of a wonky memo on Sept. 30 directing federal agencies to execute plans for "an orderly shutdown."

Burwell, though, isn't new to Washington's budget battles. Although just five months into her tenure at OMB, she has long been a Democratic stalwart and fiscal policy veteran.

She interned for Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., while a student at Harvard, where she earned a spot as a Rhodes scholar. She went on to work for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis before pitching in on then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's successful White House bid in 1992.

In the Clinton administration, she rose through the ranks, serving in a number of key posts: staff director of the National Economic Council, White House deputy chief of staff, chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and deputy director of the OMB under Lew.

When Obama nominated her to head OMB earlier this year, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., didn't know her and called his friend Erskine Bowles, Clinton's longtime chief of staff, to get his read.

"[Bowles] said, 'Let me put it to you this way: I know people who are as smart as Sylvia is. I know people who are as hard-working as Sylvia is. I've known people who are able to get people to work together as well as Sylvia does. But I've never known one person who does all those things as well,'" Carper told the Washington Examiner.

There's a reason Carper needed a Burwell primer. After Clinton left office, Burwell didn't stay in Washington to climb the political ladder. Instead, she moved to Seattle to work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and later continued to work on the philanthropic side of the corporate world at the Walmart Foundation. …

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